SET FIRE TO SELF - DROWN: JAMES ROBINSON |
SET FIRE TO SELF - DROWN: JAMES ROBINSON
God, it is all dark
The heart beat but there is no answering hark
Of a hearer and no one to speak
These lines, written by the New Zealand poet, John Caselberg, were admired by the country's leading artist, Colin McCahon (1919-87), who transcribed them onto his paintings. Caselberg's poem is called Van Gogh, but it uses the tortured, visionary Dutchman, as a symbol for the artist in New Zealand - a land where physical and cultural isolation has pushed painters and writers to extremes. McCahon's case is exemplary, but think also of the poet, James K.Baxter, or the painter, Tony Fomison, to name but two famous examples.
For the artist, New Zealand is a kind of earthly paradise, a land of rolling green hills and sublime scenery - but with a human landscape that displays all the characteristics of a small village community. In such a setting, artists have come to feel, and to express themselves, with extraordinary intensity. New Zealand's art and literature is filled echoes of the Old Testament, with works that may be ruthlessly modern in style but medieval in content. There is a monastic dimension to the place, and no prophet seems to avoid martyrdom - whether it be McCahon and Baxter drinking themselves to death, or Fomison's heroin addiction.
Enter James Robinson, a young artist in that extreme, New Zealand tradition, who draws, paints and writes with an intensity that makes one think of Van Gogh, or perhaps Antonin Artaud. Like those artists, he seems devoid of those social and psychic skins that allow us to exist as cool, autonomous beings in the workaday world. We make choices and decisions about our lives on a daily basis, but for these skinless creators, even the smallest events may lead to ecstasy or catastrophe; may open a window onto the void that has to be neutralized by frenzied, creative activity.
It is difficult to avoid comparisons with the kind of lukewarm, 'radical' art so beloved by today's public galleries. Look, for example, at the supposedly scandalous work of young British artists such as Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, currently showing in museums all around the world (including Sydney), and then look at Robinson's work.
If New Zealand were a medieval monastery, James's home town, Dunedin, would be the dungeon. The nine large paintings in Set fire to self, drown, are not so much a descent into the lower depths, as a circuit of the walls of a cave from which there is no way out. Like Virgil guiding Dante through the Inferno, Robinson takes us on a tour of his private heavy-metal hell: the distillation of a life spent on the edge of psychosis. All the bad things that have happened to James - and the catalogue is a long one - have been transmuted into a viral outbreak of signs and symbols, a splattering of cosmic graffiti, built up layer upon layer.
Robinson's cave walls seem to be covered with animal hides - the residue of some bloody ritual - stitched and nailed together by a latter-day caveman. Yet they are also visionary landscapes, reminiscent of the teeming vistas of Bosch or Breugel. The artist has mined the drawing books he has kept since 1995, to provide the thousands of individual images that lurk beneath his dark, resinous surfaces.
On the facing wall there are hundreds of other images, spread over dozens of tiny canvases. The pictures are disturbing and violent, the artist's working methods compulsive and spontaneous. It approaches a form of Art Brut, but Robinson cannot simply be classified as an 'Outsider' artist. Beyond all the frenetic activity, there is a creative intelligence at work - a hyper-literate, passionate imagination that leaves its mark on all these images.
Reviewers in New Zealand have themselves been driven to extremes, trying to find ways of describing Robinson's work. It has been called brooding, nightmarish, confrontational, anarchic, and "somewhat surreal", but nobody seems to have left one of his exhibitions without feeling stirred and impressed. To brave the initial onslaught and enter into Robinson's universe, is to discover a vision of exceptional delicacy, vitality and humour. It is as though all the shadows are ultimately cancelled out by the sheer superabundance of his invention.
In this work, we recognize an art to blow the lid off a world where everything is progressively more sterile, pre-packaged and bureaucratic. It is a convulsive surge of the psyche, an angry monster art that refuses to doze quietly on a gallery wall.
John McDonald, Director
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Caveman Rocket fuel, a well orchestrated organic Disaster, Digital spirit isolation angel inspect interual oppression reigemes weapons of mass creation. Dys-located. unity setting fire to myself like abstract existential work out, transcendent redundancy package for lifetime unemployment, a third world consumer conscience a psycho social emotive incest sentence eat your brain narrative…were all broken here. Welcome home. Nebulous skys of vision in heart, words translate the fit it all in ethic. Burn vaulnerable open, the weight is gravity the self is light. Boundless. Saturate psycho/social porn star, a short attention span fear fed runt – shallow grave of plenty. Violent meat restrained. Feed back loop of soul control! Radar Rape puppet Freedom. Sensitive savage mutant – same as you. Like crime only different, interpersenel softcore metaphysics, b lack whole vision quest of shame rebuttle. Automatic weapons for the poor and nice coloring ins my best let down promise. and landscape of miracle shopping trolley spill…kill me new. Let go possibility grasp. Hollow empty, what I drown in fills gaps. What I birth kills me. The flames feel good!
James Robinson, January, 2003
Above: top - James Robinson, Raw Hard Core (detail), 2002, mixed media on canvas,
bottom - Raw Hard Core, 2002, Mixed Media on Canvas
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