Essay for Hidden Worlds Catalogue
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In Renee Robbins’ studio, nature magazines and biology books are everywhere. Images have been printed or torn out and taped to the walls. A significant part of her process is looking at these images...and looking and looking and looking…. However, by the time she’s painting her wild nature-scapes, she’s not working from any of these images. In fact, her process begins with abstract gestures within which the artist finds formal hints that she then works into various flora and fauna, both real and fictive. Artists tend to fall into certain categories in terms of making and using processes: intuitive or carefully planned, realistic or invented. Robbins’ practice is regularly and actively all of these, and it’s this complex tension between the familiar and the painterly that makes her compositions so visually and conceptually captivating.
Robbins’ paintings are dense, filled with patterns drawn from outer space, the deep sea and the microscopic. In a single painting, one can spot the scales of a chameleon, tracheids, blue button shellfish, the rings of Saturn, “razzle dazzle” World War I camouflage, mitosis, and cacti among a flurry of other images, often floating atop vast, murky blue-ish grounds. These elements from different environments integrated into the same picture plane highlight the inherent structures and motifs shared among them, and also complicates the viewers’ ability to determine exactly what they’re looking at.
The artist’s “Wunderkammer” series, in particular, exploits this ambiguity. Unlike most of her oeuvre, the “Wunderkammer” pieces are all uniform in their composition: Each of these works on paper features a circle in the center, packed with renderings of specimens seemingly derived a different genus. From Memory is layered with butterfly wings; Super Star is a tangle of starfish arms. Some of the specific organisms pictured in “Wunderkammer” are real, though many others are a product of Robbins’ imagination--but even those aren’t so far off the mark. According to the artist, a biologist once surveyed the diatoms in Planktos, naming all the actual creatures pictured, as well as a few that had been invented by Robbins--a fact which further blurs the boundaries of what constitutes actuality.
In “Biota,” Robbins’ aptitude as a seasoned painter and an amatuer scientist culminates in a narrative series that begins with the artist’s pseudo-feasible biome, then follows its evolutionary journey. In Searchlight, some simple, flat, neutral-colored organisms begin to gather. Later, in Hula and Lei, we see these forms now layered with rainbow washes and deepened contrasts, effectively illustrating growth over time. By Wormhole and Night-Blooms, Rockets, & Moon Lanterns, the community of living things has abounded into a rich, luminous forest with the illusion of indeterminate depths.
Like good science fiction, Robbins’ paintings begin with impressing upon us the most fascinating of realities, but then pushes beyond, into the realm of the probable and the possible. The artist’s chosen subject matter--space, oceans, microbes--are rife with strangeness, with real things that are so bizarre we are apt to question whether they’re real at all. And, these places are among the last environs where discoveries have yet to be made and secrets are yet to be uncovered. The works in this volume are so successful because Robbins is finely tuned in to the ways nature can ignite our imaginations.
--Robin Dluzen, Artist & Critic