This week I received Stuart Robinson‘s new book Ham Fisted Half Cocked in the post. This was particularly exciting because I had written the foreword essay for the book!! Here is the full text of the essay, with photos from Stuart’s website. Look out for Stuart’s forthcoming solo exhibition as part of The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art‘s Southwest Showcase programme in 2017.
On Closer Inspection: the work of Stuart Robinson
Walking into a show by Stuart Robinson is like walking into a strangely familiar catalogue or showroom – I get the feeling that I already ‘know’ the work, even though I have never seen it before. This is less because it follows any particular fashion or passing fad and more to do with Robinson’s treatment (and processing) of mass culture. He seems to be busy with taking it in, digesting it, condensing it or boiling it down and rebuilding it in simplified form. The subjects he draws upon shift in and out of focus from the mundane to the exotic and back again. In this space, half-remembered or misremembered fragments of visual and spatial information are recreated using commonplace materials (metal poles, painted wooden box carcasses, strip-light powered lightboxes, acrylic and pine) in a way that hints at monumentality but remains, at the same time, completely domestic in scale. In a strangely satisfying way, this is work that can almost be taken in at one glance, but really rewards closer inspection.
Robinson’s approach is akin to that of a worldmaker – a novelist blocking out the scenarios in which the action will occur, a game designer building imagined levels and environments as a backdrop for first-person gameplay or a filmmaker shooting establishing shots and developing mise-en-scène. However, this is a world of blanks, where the text has been stripped away (literally, in the case of Nicely Does It or the large Pennants hanging from the ceiling and draped onto the floor), where the identifying features are at the same time familiar and foreign, where I feel at once at home and alien.
Robinson’s world is made up of a series of hand-built objects that become modular within his practice. Works are rearranged and re-displayed in new configurations (eg Best Western in ‘Get it Here’ at the Fish Factory and in ‘Ham Fisted Half Cocked’ at Back Lane West), treated as stand-alone elements or building blocks that are brought together (out of isolation) for exhibition. In conversation, Stuart talks about how he likes to spend a long time in the exhibition space, playing around with the composition of the space as a whole and how the individual pieces interact with each other. He goes through a process of tweaking and re-tweaking the placement of objects, and enjoys realising the previously unrealised through-lines that become apparent when two or three works share the space in a new configuration.
The work is displayed in a way that makes it impossible to take in or encounter one piece at a time – the proximity and form of the works mean that they leach into each other’s space, draw your eye from one to another. Even in its finished form, this is a space under construction. Pieces are hung from industrial metal racking – the type you would more often find in a warehouse or holding up merchandising stands in a clothes shop. Blank signs hang, waiting, like those you might encounter on a high street, mid-changeover between businesses moving in and out of a premises. Screw holes in the painted wood allude to off-the-shelf signage that has been configured to say something particular but has now been stripped of its intended use. These are objects whose sole function is to alert their viewers to something – to advertise availability, or communicate a brand – to say something. But now, temporarily it feels, they are mute. We can only guess at what they did or will communicate. They are glitches in the smooth running of a capitalist economy – reminders that, as Rosa Menkman (art theorist and glitch artist) would highlight, while they are working as designed this type of sign acts as a channel for (near) perfect transmission. They can feel permanent, as though they have, and will, always be there. When in operation, signs like this are part of the backdrop of urban spaces – a constant that our attention is only drawn to when they are interrupted. It is only when they break down, when they are being stripped, updated or changed, when we see them in a state of undress like this that we are likely to be reminded of their impermanence.
Stuart Robinson – install view at Back Lane West
As with the majority of Robinson’s work, it is only after a little deliberation that I realise that their scale is also all ‘off’. These signs, and the other pieces in the show, are not actual size or straightforward replicas. They are also not quite scale models, although Robinson does often draw on this vernacular. It is as though they have been drawn from photographs rather than from life. When we talk about this, Stuart tells me that his decisions on the scale of the work come from his experience of remembering and re-encountering elements of the outside world in mediated form – the process in which larger objects become scaled to the size of your TV, the page of a book, a sketch, a photograph or a poster. The memories, or the way in which you see recognisable objects in your mind’s eye, might shrink them to a more domestic scale to fit into your living room, onto your kitchen table or into spaces that are designed with human bodily dimensions in mind. Stuart talks about the relationship between this and models that are used in filmmaking and special effects. He remembers seeing the original models used in the making of the 1982 genre-defining tech noir sci-fi epic Blade Runner, and these being “surprisingly crude things, made out of combs and bits and pieces – all spraypainted black”. However, with these basic models and (now relatively primitive) practical effects, the SFX crew generated one of 20th century cinema’s most recognisable and immersive landscapes – providing the audience with just the right amount of detail to successfully place the film’s action in a credible dystopian re-versioning of Los Angeles.
In his own practice, he is intrigued by making objects that do “just enough” to suggest their real-world counterparts, in the same way that SFX models do. Robinson’s objects need to read well in the exhibition space (and by extension in photographs, as you see in this publication or online), just as theatrical props, scenic backdrops or chroma key mattes would on stage or on-screen. His challenge is then parallel to that of a prop-maker who realises that ordinary or ‘real’ objects are often poorly adapted to the task of looking like themselves to an audience. New, specially designed objects need to be created to successfully stand-in for the purposes of communicating known or experienced details quickly and efficiently. They need to root the viewer in a specific place, period or situation, giving the impression of certainty and the ability to actively locate the action that is taking place (or is about to) while at the same time be generic enough to speak to a wide audience with a variety of individual experiences. Too much detail has the potential to shut down readings. There is a fine line to be traversed – these objects need to look more like the imagined authentic than the real or actual object would, and at the same time be blank enough for an audience to project their own imagined authentic onto. It seems to me that Robinson’s aim is also to make you acutely aware of this internal process while viewing the work.
Much of the work retains, references and complicates this feeling of theatre flats or movie props – in fact, some of the work takes this form, as in Mitten (2014), a halftone photographic reproduction of a ‘butte’ rock formation from Monument Valley, USA, pasted onto board held upright with exposed perpendicular baton braces on casters. As I walk towards this piece, I realise that I am going to meet it at about chest height. It is not vast, majestic or overwhelming. It is not solid, immovable and ancient. It is a photograph (another photograph) of what is disputedly Earth’s most photographed natural rock formation. Actually, it is not even a photograph – it’s an enlarged photocopy of a photograph, most likely from a book or a magazine… but, it’s pretty large for a photocopy. But not big enough to be billboard sized… This internal battle to try and determine the ‘size’ of the object in front of me goes on for some time. It is confusing and enjoyable – my brain is trying to re-negotiate how to place this image, or this image of an image, how to define it and understand it. I think about how well this piece must ‘photograph’ as a piece of work, and then I’m lost again… thinking about the flattening effects of photography, thinking about never being able to go to famous landmarks without feeling as though I am looking at a photograph rather than the ‘real thing’. And now, I think about you, reading this, looking at a picture of Mitten elsewhere in this book and trying to work out what all the fuss is about. You can’t even really work out what size it is from the photographs. You’re missing a marker for scale – a 50p or a black and white striped ruler, a person or a coffee cup. Instead, your scale markers are going to be the materials themselves – is that 2 x 1 batton or is it thicker? Eventually, you might land on the thickness of the chipboard – you know how thick chipboard is and you can work the rest out from there.
This sense of working-back-from-what-you-know seems useful to me as a way to navigate the work. This show is full of things that are distinctive and recognisable, but at the same time part of the relentless collage of mass culture. I am as likely to encounter this object as part of the merchandising of an outlet of Urban Outfitters as I am to place it in my own my rememberings of hours spent watching Roadrunner cartoons or my brief leafings through the pages of National Geographic in the toilets of other people’s houses. The ‘original’ that it depicts is probably the backdrop to a chase in Thelma & Louise, or the stomping ground of the Marlboro Man, but now I can’t quite be sure. My memory and what-I-know is thrown into uncertainty. I can’t even be sure that I know exactly where in the world the original Mitten is. I think again about how I might encounter an object much like this in Urban Outfitters and it seems particularly apt. It stands there as a massively full, and at the same time, painfully hollow signifier – filled and emptied with meaning so many times it has become spent. Something about this spentness seems important.
The work collected together in this book takes me on a trip, to a place I will probably never go – a trip to the college campuses of American universities or high schools, past roadside diners and illuminated billboards, to explore underground caverns dripping with giant stalactites and back to a cheap downtown hotel with a flashing neon arrow pointing at its entrance. I will probably never go there not only because of the geographical distance between me and these places, but because these are places that probably don’t exist. They are built on an uneasy marriage of artifice with verisimilitude. This feeling is echoed in pieces like Man Mountain, a collection of cut-out halftone images pasted onto board, of naturally occurring and man-made mountains, collected together and displayed to suggest a mountain range of uncanny peaks – familiar, yet incongruous. Stuart tells me that one of these peaks is the tallest ‘mountain’ in Florida, built in concrete, steel and fiberglass to house Disney’s Expedition Everest attraction and is listed in the 2011 book of Guinness World Records as the most expensive roller coaster in the world.
Watching a POV video of the ride, I think about the trip designed by Disney’s theme park Imagineers, making the almost unimaginable scale of the Nepalese mountain range bite-sized, consumable easily within three and a half minutes. The very real threats that prevent me, or the theme park’s 10.4 million annual guests, from visiting Everest’s summit are replaced by the mythical threat of an angry yeti. The wild, unknowable landscape is made safe – tamed and domesticated, scaled down for the purposes of becoming experienceable and so that it will fit within the viewfinder of a camera. Interestingly, the shape, form and silhouette of Expedition Everest are not based on the mountain that shares its name, but, like Robinson’s piece, is a purposeful construction dreamed up in a workshop – a re-purposing of an imagined authentic to create a new idealised (and heavily controlled) environment – generating a familiar vista that didn’t previously exist. In both cases, the resulting construction is a version – a new form that simultaneously differs from, and retains, certain qualities of earlier forms; an account of reality from a particular person’s point of view; and a rendering that pursues truthlikeness with the aim of generating a new truth to stand alongside (and in some cases stand in for, or replace) the ‘original’ in the world.
However, Robinson’s work is not that interested in generating falsehoods, or in a simple critique of the hyperreal or late-capitalism. It invites the audience to take pleasure in spending time with objects that are, in Stuart’s words “so domestic… so bloody standard, but mimicking something cinematic”. These objects don’t pretend – they give up their secrets easily, and reward the viewer’s attention to detail. There is something strangely exciting about recognising the wardrobe rail fixings that join the Habitat lights to a sheet of plywood to create Billboard, or realising that the backdrop to the photo of a model cable car is in fact a Chesterfield sofa or a duvet (Home Landscapes). Rather than displaying concern for the pursuit of authenticity in a Baudrillardian world saturated with signs and simulacra, the objects Robinson creates are honest and faithful responses to a very human experience of the contemporary world – our daily experience of drawing on flawed memories of our previous encounters with objects and images, and revelling in all of our memory and imagination’s unreliable, inaccurate beauty. They celebrate the way in which we continuously navigate high, low and mass cultural artifacts with our wholly fallible senses – seeing and experiencing things not only as they ‘are’, but also, simultaneously, as what they could be, what we wish they might be and how we think we remember them being.
As you look through the pages of this book, I get the feeling that you might already ‘know’ the work too – again, not necessarily because you have seen it in the flesh, but because when you feel like you ‘know’ an object, you already have its backstory in mind. I hope (and I think Stuart does too?) that when you encounter this work it almost refuses an explanation, deeming explanations as unnecessary. You and I may share some of the cultural reference points that lead us to specific shared readings of the work, but even more likely is that our individual readings will bring us to different places, conjuring up new personal resonances and rewarding each of us for making our own interpretations. Hopefully the objects you see here will stick in your mind, will become part of your visual and spatial memory and will be recalled at some point in the future when you encounter other objects or situations in your own life. This process completes the circle. The work itself with its messy edges and ill-defined boundaries, the photographs of it, and the memories and recall of encounters with it, all ultimately feed back into the same visual array – re-informing the narrative they initially reference – having journeyed and returned with new stories of their own.
Stuart Robinson’s book Ham Fisted Half Cocked (with essay by Rachel Dobbs) is available to buy here…
- 100 pages
- cloth bound hardback
- £13 + p&p
Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist and educator based in Plymouth, UK. Rachel is involved in researching and writing around ideas of dissemination (of contemporary arts practices) and examinations of things that may be over-looked, over-used or over-familiar. She is also a keen supporter of DIY arts practice and publishing,