Naked Introspection

Sunday, June 15, 1997

David Robinson's nude sculptures are meditations on being human.

By Barry Link, News Reporter | The Richmond News

David RobinsonHe might be sitting beside you on a bus, or a few seats down in a movie theatre; he might be sprawled across a sidewalk or standing outside an art gallery as you pass by. These pale, quiet figures are all friends of David Robinson's, people he'd like you to say hello to over the next few weeks.

The Vancouver sculptor is interested in the way we brush past scores of strangers every day without even once registering their presence.

It makes a certain cock-eyed sense, he says, in a city without a memory like this one. If we can ignore the need to save historic neighbourhoods, why would we carry memories of faceless bystanders?

As a way of addressing that dull anonymity of urban life, Robinson created a platoon of life-sized male figures, cast them in polymer-gypsum and then painted them with a milky white egg tempura glaze. The figures, called Inhabitants, will pop up in very public sites around the city for a few weeks at a time.

The goal, Robinson explains, is to inspire memories of the urban landscape through which we move. We might or might not remember having to step around a drunk on the sidewalk. But if the drunk has been rendered monumental, cast in resin life-size or larger, he becomes controversial.

He wants to argue with us, debate his right to be there, his right to lie on the sidewalk and still be a person. Our chances of carrying away a memory from that sort of encounter are much improved.

Robinson has been the subject this year of not one, but two curated museum surveys of his work. Means and Ends, the exhibition now on at Coquitlam's excellent Evergreen Cultural Centre, shows an artist of conspicuous gifts at a major turning point in his career.

In recent seasons, Robinson has focused on intricately detailed juxtapositions of humans and their urban environments. His trademark works feature male figures bound up in mechanical apparatus, as if the human body were an actual gear in a larger machine. In his early days as an artist, Robinson supported himself as a construction laborer, and some of that experience has found its way into his art.

In 1993's Core Sample, for instance, Robinson positions a male figure in an elongated, tubular pose, as if it had just been extracted from a drilling site. The bronze surface is dulled with silver nitrate in imitation of mineral ore.

From the same year, Artifice and Edifice encases a half life-sized human figure in a high-rise crane derrick, the body providing the tower on which the derrick ought to pivot. That effect is intensified by placing the sculpture on top of a tall plinth, as if it were being viewed on the unfinished roof of a West End Highrise.

While early figures are precise and realistic, recent figures are bundles of sinews and tendons, the hungry, flayed bodies of anatomical studies.

In the last year, Robinson's work has evolved considerably, becoming less minutely detailed and more expressive. Where the early figures are precise and realistic, recent figures are bundles of sinews and tendons, the hungry, flayed bodies of anatomical studies.

Created with drips of hot glue from a gIue gun and then cast in metal, these raw, rangy figures are reminiscent of Giacometti, without the great ltalian's terrifying sense of dread and anguish.

Robinson also seems to be thinking bigger that before, on the scale of true public art. Opportune Moment, produced earlier this year, is a tall face of rusted steel with a human figure poised on the sill of an opening, as if ready to fly out. Although room-sized here, the work could easily be rendered on a massive scale.

In Maquette for Inhabitants: an Urban Installation, the flayed figures are posed against the steel walls of an building excavation. The steel panels that hold back the earth, rusted and flaking, begin to look like sculptural elements themselves - the plate forms of Antony Caro, say.

Robinson's work cries out for full-scale realization - a degree of acknowledgement that normally comes only to the most senior artists, to creators such as Bill Reid and Jack Harmon.

But Robinson's superb sense of surface and nature of theatre qualify him for work as a monument builder.

He says, humbly, that he worries about making so grand a statement as a monument, in a society as pluralistic as this. But his Equestrian for instance, a mounted figure created in 1991, has a greatness unmatched by any sculpture in Vancouver, save for Reid's Spirit Canoe.

This image of a figure, loosely meshed in cord, astride a horse over which he has no control, is a plain-speaking metaphor for the way many Vancouverites feel about their lives.

It deserves to be cast in bronze, larger than life, planted where we can all share its puzzled and accepting expression.