fish-boy.crop before: paul o robinson was born into a family of concert and circus musicians and taxidermists and was raised on the atlantic coast of northeast florida, usa; attended university in music theory and composition; served a 5-year apprenticeship in the atelier of a master industrial patter-maker; began studio paul o robinson; received a master’s degree in architecture; received a fulbright fellowship in art & architecture.

current: primary studio located in ljubljana, slovenia, where x-rays, paintings, 3-dimensional constructions and castings are developed to induce intertwined correspondences between art and space; exhibitions and installations in europe and usa; teaches design and theory at the fakulteta za arhitekturo v ljubljani; visiting professor at l’università di venezia iuav; universtity of florida 2017 distinguished alumni recipient, and 2017 recipient of slovenia/university of ljubljana’s recognition of important works of art.

 

Artist’s Statement

Much of my current work emerges from the confluences of a diverse history as an industrial patternmaker [1], architect and visual artist. From the onset of my career as an artist these nonhierarchical pursuits have intersected as a means to locate and transform spaces and objects that bear witness to various cultural narratives. Rarely do I begin a work by confronting a blank page. I am not particularly a formalist, nor do I believe that what is often considered abstract to be abstract. Yet, admittedly, and perhaps contrary to the aforementioned, form is everything – it’s what we perceive: form holds the potential energy born from the intercourse of facility and imagination. My fascination with artefacts and their repositories has led me to seek places—at times historical, at times benign, at times politically charged—that inspire manifold processes leading to the creation of both unique pieces and collective spatial installations. There is perhaps an underlying archaeological process to much of my work, yet as the archaeology of uncovering and exposing is predictably seen as linear, my work often forms correspondences that are decidedly nonlinear. [2]

As an artist—a maker of things—I have a deep respect for tools and the traces that both the conventional and unconventional use of tools bring to the process of materializing the invisible. My installations and their constituent pieces often emerge from intensive forensic explorations—a museum, a crime scene, a house…a room—using X-Ray technology; in turn the critical X-Ray—the tool—excites, perhaps enlivens is more apt, both the inanimate and narrative presences within the spaces and objects bombarded by the X-Ray beam. In a nanosecond the invisible X-Ray forcibly dismisses superficial countenances and with controlled technicality illuminates deeper spaces and their shadowy structures. [3]

As a child I daily occupied the large rooms of my family’s taxidermy shop. While moving from table to table I randomly played with the odd surgical tools of the trade. I made plaster molds and sculptures, and I painted, all the while imagining the (re)animation of the once-alive bodies strewn about the formaldehyde laced shop-in-the-woods.

Now this privileged history of intersecting endeavors informs processes that serve to artistically transform cultural artefacts into multiform visual and haptic experiences, where the seductive byproducts of the X-ray unfold via painting, mold-making and sculpting as entwined storytellers within new narrative structures and visual forms. [4]

Current Work Narrative

For the past 25 years Paul O Robinson has carefully developed a creative practice within which visual art, architecture and research entwine, resulting in works that theorist, architectural historian and author Alberto PérezGómez notes “deliberately acknowledges and leaves behind the dangerous oscillations of art from impressionism to contemporary experimentalism: attempts at depth caught in a metaphysical misstep, or celebrations of the surface that eventually wallow in superficiality. Instead we witness the hopeful unveiling of meaning for embodied sight, beyond the purely retinal: the moment depth becomes surface, and the work presences the enigma which is life, the mind in body or spiritual flesh. Unfathomable and erotic, mysterious and seductive: like the two sides of the penumbra that many centuries ago the insightful Giordano Bruno suggested was the true nature of everything that is, without ever becoming simply “light” or “shadow.”. Most recently—the past 10 years—he has focused on multiform works that combine radiography, painting and sculpture; works that often begin with the X-Ray and are then transformed through lengthy painting processes to emerge as talisman-like sculptures, where the original is materially unfolded, having the effect, according to PérezGómez, “of overcoming the traditional dualities often invoked by philosophers, poets and art critics since the beginning of modernity; it exists beyond such concepts as form and content, surface and depth, to reveal a numinous reversibility”. [5]

Robinson grew up on the Atlantic coast of North Florida amongst a family of taxidermists and concert and circus musicians. He began his university education in music theory and composition, and from there he changed course to serve a traditional five-year apprenticeship with a master patternmaker; afterwards he opened his design studio within which he began to develop work that would direct him again to university, this time for art and architecture. The intersection of artistic process and architectural design suggested alternative ways to practice and, to teach. Robinson has been actively teaching and maintaining his studio since 2000. In 2009 he received a Fulbright fellowship to Slovenia where he focused on developing entirely new work that excavated existing spatial environments using X-Ray technology. Often with the X-Ray as a substrate, he developed processes to transform both two and three-dimensional artifacts into individual artworks—radiographs, paintings and sculptures—and recomposed spatial installations. Each artwork emerges as a material correspondence with the spaces and objects Robinson explores; in this respect all works have their own individual—non-homogeneous—narrative and material language.

According to the author, educator and critic Robert McCarter, Robinson’s production can be understood as “lamination” of life experiences, some of those beginning during a childhood spent in his father’s and grandfather’s taxidermy shop. McCarter goes on to say that “What sets Robinson’s work apart from that of his peers, and makes it particularly worthy of notice, is that this broad range of experiences has been fully integrated in his research, teaching and most notably in his site-specific artworks and interventions…In short, Robinson brings a unique approach to his work, grounded as it is in an almost medieval, guild-like approach to the craft of making new spatial and experiential knots intertwining time and place, and to unfolding and re-presenting existing places and artifacts of embodied presence—and absence—so as to allow them to be experienced in an entirely new way.” [6]

Robinson now permanently resides and works in Ljubljana, Slovenia. His work is a painstakingly personal journey and has not until 10 years ago been offered to the public realm. Since then he has held residencies and his work has been exhibited in Museums and galleries in the US and Italy, in particular, Venice. His work is in collections in Europe and the US. Currently he is working with Venice’s Fortuny Museum on a long-term project that will be exhibited in 2021.

In what is perhaps an apt summary of Robinson’s current work McCarter notes that “Characteristics, attributes and qualities that consistently mark Robinson’s work […] would include an intensity of attention to materials and anthropological detail in the artifacts emerging from the tradition of making—such as can be found in the works of the Austrian sculptor-architect Walter Pichler; the resonance of human action in space and form, the obsessive embedment of the human figure in a particular place, and the parallel deep immersion of contemporary experience in historical context—as can be found in the works of the Venetian architect-glass craftsman Carlo Scarpa; and an acute and penetrating insight into the human condition, accompanied by a remarkable breadth of analogous implication in the response to things—such as can be found in the works of the American architect-educator John Hejduk. And finally, there is Robinson’s consistently inventive, deeply personal and ultimately insatiable desire to find the productive and meaningful ground shared by architecture and art, poetry and philosophy, and to bring those dueling grounds simultaneously into presence in our experience.” [7]

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[1] Patternmaking: the art and science of making forms, or models, called patterns, into whose impressions in sand or other materials, called molds, metal or other fluid materials are poured to give forms known as castings.
[2] Kara, Levent, Not From Scratch, The Sweet Moment of Discontinuity; Paul O Robinson, Form of Absence: Traces|Relics|X-Rays, pg. 75
[3] See “Site Castings: Entwinements in Palazzo Fortuny”, Vesper, SUPERVENICE volume 1. Alberto PérezGómez, pg. 14
[4] From the introduction to Traces, Relics and X-Rays – The Form of Absence, Paul O Robinson at Iuav, by Robert McCarter, curated and edited by Agostino De Rosa and Alessio Bortot. Pg. 3
[5] See “Site Castings: Entwinements in Palazzo Fortuny”, Vesper, SUPERVENICE volume 1. PérezGómez, pg. 14
[6] From the introduction to Traces, Relics and X-Rays – The Form of Absence, Paul O Robinson at Iuav Venezia, curated and edited by Agostino De Rosa and Alessio Bortot. Pg. 3
[7] Ibid

 

Artifacts of Embodied Absence

Robert McCarter

Leonardo da Vinci used to place his students in front of a wall so that they might get accustomed to noticing a great number of imaginary forms in the shapes of the stones, in their joining lines, in the play of light and shade. Platonic to the core, all that Leonardo was looking for in reality was…the awakener of the spirit.

—José Ortega y Gasset[i]

Paul O. Robinson is a provocative and insightful thinker, designer, builder, pedagogue and maker of artifacts of artistic and architectural significance. Raised in a family of musicians and taxidermists, he was trained as an apprentice to a master industrial pattern-maker, achieving Master Woodworker status. From there he moved on to an undergraduate architectural education, then obtained his contracting license as a builder, and then returning to graduate school in architecture. In parallel to an architectural practice that involved an exquisite intertwining of material and experience, Robinson began teaching architecture, which led to his and his students’ projects being engaged at all scales, from crafted hardware to urban space. In his European teaching (in the University of Florida’s program in Vicenza, Italy, and at the Universities of Ljubljana and Venice) he developed a series of re-interpretive interventions in the historic fabric of the city. His recent works fusing art and architecture may also be characterized as original, highly creative, insightfully interpretive interventions—in this case at the intimate scale of the body, of the dwelling place and of their artifacts.

Yet, rather than any sequential unfolding, Robinson’s experience, and the works that have resulted, have been a lamination and layering of all these varied ways of making and thinking about inhabited space, and the resonance of memory in place and artifact. His work is a weaving together of occupied space and absence presences that can perhaps only be situated in the interstices between the disciplines of art and architecture. What sets Robinson’s work apart from that of his peers, and makes it particularly worthy of notice, is that this broad range of experiences has been fully integrated in his research, teaching and most notably in his site-specific artifacts and interventions. This is paralleled by the manner in which his thinking and making now operate simultaneously at all scales, from the smallest hand-held object to the largest cities, and across time, intertwining the ancient and the modern. In short, Robinson brings a unique approach to his work, grounded as it is in an almost medieval, guild-like approach to the craft of making new spatial and experiential knots intertwining time and place, and to unfolding and re-presenting existing places and artifacts of embodied presence—and absence—so as to allow them to be experienced in an entirely new way.

The rigor and precision of Robinson’s making and thinking, combined with the inventiveness of his research and creative process, including the extensive use of X-ray technology as the starting point for artistic interpretation, and the richness of his chosen analytical materials—including most notably the home and studio of Plecnik in Ljubljana, and recently unfolding in the historic rooms and resonant objects of Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Italy—have resulted in what might best be called a “forensic” art of documentation, interpretation, construction and re-projection of inhabited space and its intertwining of absences and presences. For Robinson, the room is the consummate interior, understood as a human shell, cocoon and nest, which is then unfolded and rescaled to engage the city understood as the collective spatial infrastructure of memory.

Robinson’s work explores the subtle yet powerful interplay between absence and presence, form and history, and surface and depth. In these last characteristics, Robinson’s work re-engages and brings into contemporary presence aspects and qualities of modern existence first articulated by José Ortega y Gasset in his first book, Meditations on Quixote, of 1914, where he noted that “depth is fatally condemned to become surface if it wants to be visible.” The density and thickness of experience led Ortega y Gasset to note: “For just as depth needs a surface beneath which to be concealed, the surface…needs something over which to spread, covering it.” Ortega y Gasset also notes the revelations that are possible when one’s senses become obsessively focused on the hinge-point between surface and depth: “The dimension of depth, whether of space or time, whether visual or aural, always appears in one surface, so that this surface really possesses two values: one when we take it for what it is materially, the other when we see it in its second virtual life. In the latter case the surface, without ceasing to be flat, expands in depth…[resulting in] an extreme case of a fusion of simple vision with a purely intellectual act.”[ii] The varied relations of surface and depth are critical to Robinson’s work, and to the way it is able to engage absence and presence, past and present in our contemporary experience.

Robinson’s obsessive focus on the resonant object, on its surface and its depths, on the object’s capacity to project light and cast shadows, and on the inextricable intertwining of the object and the life-world, may be related to Ortega y Gasset’s suggestive comments: “If we continue paying attention to one object, it will become more clearly perceived because we shall keep finding in it more reflections of and connections with the surrounding things. The ideal would be to make each thing the center of the universe. And this is what the depth of something means: what there is in it of reflection of other things, allusion to other things. The reflection is the most apparent form in which one thing virtually exists in another. The ‘meaning’ of a thing is the highest form of its coexistence with other things—it is its depth dimension. No, it is not enough for me to have the material body of a thing; I need, besides, to know its ‘meaning,’ that is to say, the mystic shadow which the rest of the universe casts on it.”[iii]

Because of his early training as a mold and pattern-maker, Robinson is able to engage Adrian Stokes’ understanding of architecture as being primarily the result of the act of carving (subtractive excavation), rather than modeling (additive assembly). In Robinson’s works, we are simultaneously made aware of the body, the space the body displaces or occupies, and the space that contains the body. Inner volume and structure, revealed by the X-ray and unfolded in his paintings and castings, is complemented by the exterior surface. As both a carving and a casting, Robinson’s artifacts involve intertwining, laminating, sectioning and re-composition, accomplished through an act of conceptual compression of time, space and matter. He is interested in the essence and beginnings of things—the first door, the first room, the first hat, even—and bringing these things into our presence. The word “palimpsest”—while undoubtedly sadly overused today—nevertheless fits Robinson’s work perfectly, in its cultural, physical, spatial and temporal laminations made manifest in the intertwined experience of the observer and the artifact.

Characteristics, attributes and qualities that consistently mark Robinson’s work—and which may serve as a form of summing up more than a conclusion—would include an intensity of attention to materials and anthropological detail in the artifacts emerging from the tradition of making—such as can be found in the works of the Austrian sculptor-architect Walter Pichler; the resonance of human action in space and form, the obsessive embedment of the human figure in a particular place, and the parallel deep immersion of contemporary experience in historical context—as can be found in the works of the Venetian architect-glass craftsman Carlo Scarpa; and an acute and penetrating insight into the human condition, accompanied by a remarkable breadth of analogous implication in the response to things—such as can be found in the works of the American architect-educator John Hejduk. And finally, there is Robinson’s consistently inventive, deeply personal and ultimately insatiable desire to find the productive and meaningful ground shared by architecture and art, poetry and philosophy, and to bring those dueling grounds simultaneously into presence in our experience.

© Robert McCarter 2018

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[i] José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote (1914) (New York: Norten, 1961), 143.
[ii] Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote, 59, 63, 68-69.
[iii] Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote, 89.