In His Own Image

Wednesday, March 3, 1993

In His Own Image
God, man and David Robinson are at work in bold sculptures.

By Lloyd Dykk | The Vancouver Sun, March 3, 1993


Master Builder: David Robinson stands tall before his work Speak.
Photo: Steve Bosch

A TALL SCULPTURE called Speak hovers against the upstairs wall of the Diane Farris Gallery, throwing, as art should, a mysteriously magnetic field around it. The skull-capped figure whose face gazes out with a mixture of severity and melting softness is encased in a sort of pulpit transected by a wooden beam. The amazing anatomical detail slides into mannerist exaggerations, as in the dangling, oversized feet whose toes are so articulated and prehensile that they look more like fingers. "How beautiful are the feet," to recall the eloquently simple line from Handel's Messiah.

A sense of mute speech is shared by the other works, which Sun art critic Ann Rosenberg described as "metaphors for spiritual states." Such as the two male nude figures of Power and Process, each imprisoned in what resembles a cutaway elevator shaft and almost catching the other's eye in a momentary concurrence of either rising or falling.

Or there's Crux 2 with a head weirdly pinioned in mid-air by four steel points that converge from a dense grid of scaffolds. Or Equestrian with a fat male figure, bloated but as sculpturally pure as a pear, looking complacently upward, tethered astride a horse that contradicts the rider's impassiveness with the fury and panic of Picasso's Guernica.

The promising 28-year-old creator of this grave and astonishingly polished work is David Robinson, who is one of three local artists chosen by the London Life-sponsored Young Canadian Contemporaries show that will tour the country beginning in September (the others are Laurie Papou and Chris Woods).

Soft-spoken and an angular six-foot-four, Robinson seems to have created much of his work in his own image, just as one of his themes involves the creation of God in man's.

Much has been made of the religious subtext of Robinson's work - maybe too much, or at least, too literally. His father was an Anglican minister in Toronto and at St. John's Shaughnessy after the family moved to Vancouver when Robinson was 13.

He used to go to church - naturally, it was the family thing to do - but has stopped since his father retired. He's still the pride ot the congregation and interviews with church news-sheets tend to take a certain slant he's come to dread. A parishoner once suggested that a pair of boxer shorts cover one of his nudes. "I enjoy being a shit disturber in that community, he says, voicing the only vulgarism of the interview, and apparently not for effect. "Not that I see myself as a prophet, but it makes for interesting discourse."

On the other hand, even though he keeps "a bit of a distance" from church these days, "you can't grow up as the son of a man like my father without it affecting you. It will always come to the surface. But somehow professing to be a Christian always comes across as a static representation of one's 'spiritual journey.' What it's given me is access to a way of asking questions." He picks out the words carefully: "It's about choosing to stand up and having something to say about the role of an artist. It's the exposure of the innermost self and the exorcism of those kinds of feelings." Belief as exorcism.

Working construction helped define art

"We're created in the image of God, and from that standpoint, I don't want to be involved in the further debasing of the human image."

From childhood he was absorbed by clay-modelling and high school was "very barren - most of it's a blur." Without thinking about sculpture as such, he knew he had to work in three dimensions and, straight out of high school, got into the Langara Vancouver Community College's two-year fine arts program. After that, he shied away from the usual route of the "art-historical" continuation of study. "I wanted to find a studio and get to work right away."

That has not been easy - to this day his wife, a child-care worker in the East End, mainly finances him. Getting the chance to work has been work itself. Two years ago, Robinson took a construction job building office towers. The experience records itself in the structural grids and balancing beams found in much of his work.

It was a strange time. At nights he was laboring to construct his figures, starting with the armature or skeleton, laying down muscles and then the skin, and maybe a layer of fat between the two. By day, "I was with this crew involved with building these great gleaming structures erected to the glory of man - these Babels for other people to get very rich in. It's very strange to see these things go up from nothing, when you see a building go up from its foundation of plates and rivets and this great ugly mass of internal workings that all gets covered and carpeted and detailed over.

"It's only the men who built it who know its true essence and that spoke to me. It had a direct influence on me in that piece I was posing beside for your photographer (Power and Process)."

His construction of the human image isn't too far away. Except that things don't go according to blueprint. The materials take on a life of their own, dictating what shape they're going to take. "The distortions come from the clay. Things come about through their own volition.

"I don't know where it comes from. I'm afraid of figuring it out," he says, as to why something takes the form it does. How can you get inside the mind of an artist and his correlatives? His uncle, nearly killed in a motorcycle accident. was behind the pinioned head. "I remember seeing him in hospital and he was immobile, with his head in this grid. I remember a sense of enforced calm about him."

A friend told him that his work suggested something "medieval." There is a late-Gothic quality about his figures' expressions, of light and pathos emerging from the darkness in those intensely modelled faces. his rendering of the human image painstakingly constructed from within, layered and layered as if by trans-substantiation - would probably not be considered fashionable by the standards of most of today's art schooI graduates. "But I have a hard time with that anyway," Robinson says.

"I hate to sound... but it's so common to see the human image bodycast trussed and bound and dissected limb from limb and deconstructed and minimalized, and all its integrity and humanity stripped away. You still have to be relevant to what's happening in art - that's so obvious it's not even worth saying.

"But as a Christian, one of the things I believe is that we're created in the image of God, and from that standpoint, I don't want to be involved in the further debasing of the human image. There's that line by Bruce Cockburn: 'I know all about alienated man - we've all heard as much about that as we can stand.' That's a helpful delineation for me."