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.

 

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.