Nude Everymen Make Revealing Connections

Thursday, June 12, 1997

David Robinson - Inhabitants
At the Richmond Art Gallery until June 30

By Paula Gustafson | The Georgia Straight

David Robinson would like to see his Vertical Desire hung in a public spot.

Drivers slowing for pedestrians at the crosswalk behind the Richmond Centre shopping mall will be doing double takes during June. Gazing at them from the windows of the Richmond Art Gallery are two of the life-size nude male figures sculptor David Robinson created for his Inhabitants exhibition - the first phase of an urban installation project that involves casting the plaster figures in multiples and temporarily placing them in unlikely public spaces.

'Thee standing figure could go just about anywhere, but the seated figure, I'd like to get installed into one of the city buses," Robinson explained during an interview at the Richmond Art Gallery. He anticipates there may be hurdles to clear in getting permission to use some of the urban sites where he would like to place his scuiptures, but suggested that, in the case of the seated figure, it might just be a question of strapping him down and paying his fare.

The six inhabitants sculptures, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the long, lean physique of the 33-year-old sculptor, are intended to represent everyman. Although Robinson shrugs off any mention of symbolic forms, he admits he is concerned about how peopIe "connect" with a rapidly changing city landscape. In his artist's statement he writes that he hopes the Inhabitants project "will bring my work into direct contact with the city it critiques, acting as a catalyst and crucible for personal and collective reflections on place and belonging for the city dweller".

He cites experiences we have all had, such as discovering a vacant lot where a building stood just days before. "You can't think what was there - or you can, and there are sentiments and attachments to it. Maybe the new building that goes up will also have associations, or maybe it will just be new," he mused. "There's a vacant lot where they took down the old Arts Club theatre. It's still got a bit of the concrete foundation. I really like that."

Robinson's interest in building sites goes beyond sidewalk superintending. He has worked on construction jobs, building some of the city's high-rises.

His earlier sculptures - small human figures caught in a matrix of scaffolding or precariously balanced on an overhead crane - reflected his insider knowledge of the nuts and bolts of building construction. In contrast to his previous work, which he describes as "controlled", the Inhabitants figures are constructed from burlap-wrapped Styrofoam skeletons that he coats with layerings of plaster. He enjoyed the architectural precision of his earlier sculptures, he said, but added: "Relinquishing that control to the voice of this wonderful medium is very exciting." His plaster figures appear as rough modellings; their skins ambiguously polished in some areas and unfinished in others.

His Inhabitants' project is a departure in both scale and concept from his earlier sculptures; but, he said, "This work is really no less architectural in consideration, because I intend that the sculptures will go out into the city.

The Prophet, a standing figure with upraised arms, is the cornerstone sculpture of the series. It was the first-made of Robinson's Inhabitants, and although he has titled it, he is still unsure what the raised-arm gesture means. "What is that pose? Is it grief? Is it despair? Jubilation? A blessing?" he asked. The he paused and suggested that his titles are provisional: They're not necessary for a reading of the work."

He was more specific about where he would like to see The Prophet sited - standing on the catwalk of a white-washed billboard. As for Vertical Desire, a figure whose hands grasp a trapeze bar suspended on a rope from the gallery ceiling, he thinks it should be hung from an overhead crane. "They have those great 4,000-watt work lights up on the cranes, so it could go up at night, maybe just for a half an hour, to get some photographs. Illuminated, it would obviously be a piece of sculpture and not so alarming."

Robinson hopes to place another figure, carrying a ladder, on top of the Basic Inquiry artists' studio on Main Street. "It juts into the sky. There's nothing else around it. You have this experience of coming out of the downtown, driving across the bridge [toward Main Street], and this figure would be in perfect silhouette with no mountains or other structures behind it," he explained, adding that his vision of the site for the ladder-carrying figure was intensified by an epiphany just the day before. Glancing at the steel girders of a high-rise under construction in Richmond, he saw a fellow with a great 12-foot beam in his hand and it was the same thing!"

The connections Robinson makes between the human figure and building sites, what he calls "the counter-point of the organic human image against what has been constructed", are, of course, particularly relevant in terms of the sometimes distressingly fast remaking of many lower Mainland communities. He is hoping that contractors or building owners will become sponsors of the Inhabitants project and assist with the logistics of installing his sculptures on public and private land. He has already talked about the project with the city's cultural affairs staff - who, he said, expressed moral support - but he doesn't rule out a guerrilla installation or two. And if he can make arrangements to temporarily place the sculptures in and around Vancouver, he suggested, the bus-riding seated figure could be on a transit route that connects the various sites, either physically or visually.

"If the project gains momentum," Robinson said, "I also have a desire to take this body of work back to other places that are significant in my life, to have the multiples to take, to have some in one place and to have others elsewhere." It's a fascinating proposal. For now, he is focused on developing public awareness of the project during the exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery, and on the next sculpture phase, which will be creating the moulds and casting the multiples. "Polymer gypsum is quite lightweight, and not expensive, so if anything happens to one of the sculptures it would be no great loss. I have to expect that something could happen to them."

Nude Everymen

David Robinson would like to see his Vertical Desire hung in a public spot.
Photo: The Georgia Straight