SALLY ROBINSON - 50 Year Survey Exhibition - Review by John McDonald

AN INTUITIVE PROCESS - Janis Lander interviews Sally Robinson



Cup Day

Cup Day 1995
oil on canvas
92 x 92 cms
View larger image


Tourist Rio

The Tourist - Rio 2007
acylic on canvas
167 x 106 cms



City #6

City #6 2007
acrylic on canvas
122 x 122 cms



Cassilis 1986
screenprint Ed. 50
90.5 x 90 cms



Sally Robinson and I met many years ago while working together at The Australian Museum, and have remained friends ever since. It seems fitting that we should meet at a museum of natural history for her own artistic practice is informed by interests which parallel these museums. Sally Robinson’s gaze is not, however, that of the magisterial institutions that we are familiar with from the 19th and 20th centuries, but is more similar to museums from an earlier age. These private museums were called ‘cabinets of curiosity’ or 'wunderkammer', literally ‘rooms of wonder’. In these the quirkiness of the world was highlighted, the unusual rather than the typical was cherished, the exception rather than the rule, ruled. Before the scientific order was fully established these rooms were packed with newly discovered creatures - kangaroos sat alongside two -headed dogs, which were next to the artefacts of then exotic cultures. As a child Sally Robinson followed the voyage familiar to those explorers, like Cook, who discovered the strange creatures that filled these museums of wonder and curiosity. She speaks of her amazement on arriving in a Sydney heat wave after a childhood in Surrey, England, and her work seems marked by this earlier sense of bemused but delighted surprise.

These old collections may now appear macabre and exhibiting a bizarre sensibility. But perhaps the modern museum has regimented our gaze - perhaps it is we moderns who see the bizarre and the macabre, rather than the wonder and magnificence of the exception, the strange, the unusual, the hybrid, the mutant? Sally Robinson’s art is one that reminds us, like those ancient museums, that idiosyncratic wondrousness is a natural condition. There is an emphasis on the almost surreal strangeness of the entire earthly condition. One comes away from her work with a sense of the displacement of the individual, the group and the species, whether it is human, animal, insect, bird or rock, within their environment. Her work exhibits a humorous sense of this surreal condition of estrangement, a sense that the rather odd but engaging creatures she depicts are asking themselves: ‘How did I get here?’ The sensibility in her work is a slightly puzzled one, as if we are all visitors from some far off world, somehow finding ourselves in a strange and new place. This is not a dark and fearful gaze, rather it is one of bemusement, as if to say: ‘well we may be in a strange world but its not too bad, its quite interesting really and look at all these other delightful and strange creatures around us’.

This sense of wonderment is not simply the result of an eye that selects the oddity out of a particular environment but rather results from her art – a technique constructs this surrealism - which involves the meticulous layering and collaging of multiple images into a composite one. While the resulting image may appear naturalistic ('Cassilis' 1986), it is, in fact a subtly constructed hybrid ’naturalness’. This landscape is one in which a sense of somewhat surreal estrangement emerges – what the psychoanalysts, borrowing from the German, call 'unheimlich', a feeling of not being at ease in the environment.

On the one hand, her work celebrates this sense of puzzled surprise at the earthly condition, in ways reminiscent of an earlier age, and on the other hand it also demonstrates the most modern and contemporary of sensibilities. Her wonderment is that of NOW, of the present moment. It is a very contemporary moment and a very particular place that is celebrated. Like the abstract painter of the New York School, Barnett Newman, for Sally Robinson - the sublime is NOW. The place where the NOW is celebrated is often, though not always, Australia, from the earthlings of Bondi as depicted in her 'Bondi Beach', 1976, to the flying foxes of the Queensland rainforest seen in 'Rainforest', 1988. Sometimes it is other places - an Antarctic where the penguins look as out of place in their environment ('Atlas Cove' 1993) as do the bikini clad girls crossing the street on Bondi’s Campbell Parade in her screenprint 'Beach Crossing', 1976, or a tourist in Brazil ('The Tourist - Rio' 2007). In her abstract colour field paintings the artist moves from the depiction of landscape ('City #3' 2006) to an exploration of another kind of strange and wonderful land, the field of colour itself ('Field #10' 2004).

Although this sensibility of wonderment and estrangement inhabits the extensive body of work she has been creating for over thirty years, her techniques and modes of presentation have changed and her early work in silk screens has given way to painting. Her practice has come to encompass individual portraits ('Self Portrait with Mask' 2001) as well as abstract colour field paintings ('City #6' 2006), but it is her portraits that retain the sense of the distinct, slightly quirky qualities of the individual. In these works, compared to her earlier silk screens, there is a change in the physical and emotional distance between the artist and the subject she depicts. While her earlier work tended to portray the individual as part of a type or species in its environment, somewhat like a museum diorama, painting has been the medium she employs for the exploration of the unique character and personality of her subject. If her earlier work embodied a gaze that was slightly distanced, although gentle and humorous, now her eye is closer and more intimate and sometimes darker, but always capturing the individual in the midst of their very particular environment, often with the tools of their trade ('Angry Anderson' 2006).

While her silk-screen prints used layering and collage to create the somewhat surreal sense of the creature in their landscape, her painting uses a different but equally effective technique to construct the sense of somewhat surreal wonderment. Now the artist stencils over the portrait with symbols, sometimes letters, sometimes pixels, which, once again, create this slight sense of estrangement. This stencilling fragments the image although the naturalism of the portrait, in its entirety, is still maintained. This technique reminds us that while our vision is very powerful, we may not be able to see completely. It suggests that, despite our formidable scientific knowledge, the world, and the individuals in it, always maintain a sense of mystery. Sally Robinson's art is a useful reminder that we, who often see ourselves as masters of the universe, still have much to learn about this strange and wonderful place in which we find ourselves.

Dr Diane Losche © 2008
School of Art History and Theory
College of Fine Arts
University of New South Wales