Religious studies: David Robinson's relation to faith lies at the heart of a spellbinding exhibition

Thursday, December 16, 1999

By Michael Scott, Visual Arts Critic | The Vancouver Sun

David Robinson On Holy Ground: Reflections on Biblical Images. Regent College, UBC, to Dec. 24.

Vancouver sculptor David Robinson was not eager to undertake a commission for Regent College, the University of British Columbia's graduate school of Christian studies. An Anglican minister's son, Robinson had tangled feelings about commission work in general, and religious subject matter in particular.

But in the course of developing ideas for a series of seven architectural niches in the front facade of the 1988 Clive Grout-designed building, Robinson found himself face to face with a level of serendipity he had not encountered before.

Objects he found while he was developing those ideas, and study models for the building's seven niches, now form the core of a spellbinding exhibition of new work at Regent College.

For a time it seemed he could not take a step without encountering some deeply resonant coincidence. Consider the artist's chance visit to a scrap yard, where he found the metre-tall aluminum letters that spell the word Majesty (the castoffs of a refitted cruise ship called Crown Majesty). Or the styrofoam shipping insert tossed up on a beach, which looks for all the world like a pale stone tablet carved with a Celtic cross. Or the pair of gull wings, found on a beach, that seem sprung whole cloth from the pages of the Book of Revelation.

Reframed in the context of religious art, each of these materials takes on profound meaning. The aluminum letters -- installed across the soaring windows of Regent College's Lookout Gallery, with Howe Sound and the North Shore mountains spread out in the distance -- raise the real possibility of divine presence in nature. The gull wings, steeped in wax and surmounted by a cat skull, become an avenging seraph, harrowing and phantasmagorical in equal measure.

Ultimately, Robinson arrived at an idea for the seven niches that owes its genesis to Jesus' seven allusive statements in the Gospel of Saint John: I am the Gate; I am the Resurrection and the Life; I am the Vine and so on.

Robinson created a number of possibilities for the niches, including a series of bronze bas reliefs that interleave the texts from John with other biblical references. ("I am the Bread," for instance, is amplified by a passage from Exodus in which God promises to rain down bread on Moses.) The figures in the seven panels are impassioned and expressionistic, as flayed and raw as subjects out of Giacometti.

The most remarkable image in the exhibition (which continues through Dec. 24) is of a man in conventional business suit, standing barefoot, one wingtip dress shoe in each hand. His eyes peer toward an imagined horizon. The reference here is to Moses in the wilderness, confronting his God in the midst of the burning bush. "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet," God says, "for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."

Robinson's work underscores the possibility that the sacred is with us still, even in the midst of our secular, consumerist society.