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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Review: 'Red Studio - 45 Prints' by John Z. Robinson

Posted in: Books
By David Herkt - 30th December 2009

John Z. Robinson, as revealed in a recent series of books produced by Brent Coutts, was suddenly an artist we should be interested in. The Male Figure in the Art of John Z. Robinson was an exemplary text and its images were delectable.

Red Studio: Forty-Five Prints. Longacre Press. RRP $39.99
It was fascinating to observe the role the male nude has played in the formation of an artist, over time – especially a gay New Zealand artist. Robinson's relationship to the male figure and the struggle to get to the 'thereness' of the nude was a full and fascinating narrative.

Red Studio: 45 prints is Robinson's most recent book. It is another well-produced overview of Robinson's career – except this time as a lino-cut print-maker, from 1977 to 2008.

The introduction by Laurence Fearnley is, unfortunately, over-written and obvious. It is hard to resist quoting from its step-by-step gush – 'I imagine John Z. Robinson taking possession of his roll of lino and standing it up in the corner of his studio, simply looking at it from time to time, being aware of its presence, its smell, every time he unlocked his door in the morning. I see him cutting a small square from its unfurled bulk, a square which would become his first print...'

Robinson's texts, on the other hand, are pleasantly succinct. Each illustration is accompanied by paragraphs where Robinson comfortably enlarges on the inspiration or background of the print. It is the sort of intimate, discursive chat that one values from an artist. It is seldom art-critical and often biographical. Through these paragraphs we get a sense of the artist's life – and, in this case, over thirty years of it. It is unassuming and matter-of-fact and there is a charm and simplicity about Robinson's writing that matches the best of his prints.

John Z. Robinson
"My youngest brother Jerrald died in 1984," reads one paragraph. "It was quite unexpected: he was young and athletic. It made me realise what the 'suddenly' in 'died suddenly' meant."

"A Vase of Hearts is a variation on the still life theme of a vase of flowers," reads another. "It was inspired by cyclamen leaves, themselves perfectly rounded and arranged green hearts, with the addition of a bird which also has a heart. This print is really a simple line drawing, made into a rectangle of brittle lino with a thick blunt gouge."

Robinson's prints ultimately derive from the works of German expressionist print-makers - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner comes first to mind. The shapes are bold and flat. Robinson's play between edge and space is deftly handled. In the best of them, like Red Cat, 1986 and Moeraki, 1987, there is a distillation of the world to a few blocks of colour that is quite wonderful.

Unfortunately, in the case of others, one gets the feeling one is locked into an end-of-year show by a proficient Polytech student. Some prints are derivative and uninspiring. Some are just plain jumbly.

And this is the problem.

Ultimately, the works in this book do not justify its production. The contents feel like a mixed catalogue of a show in a small town art-gallery that prides itself on not being 'fancy'. They are work-a-day art-works, and too often it is possible, in one's mind's eye, to see them on the walls of passageways where people pass them but seldom linger. A book of them was too much hoo-hah over too little.

Only occasionally is there a hint of Robinson's skills - that knack of simplification and condensation that he uses so well.

In fact, this book highlights one of Robinson's biggest problems as an artist. In his best works he can be one of New Zealand's finer contemporary painters - the risks he takes are rewarded by glowing, transcendent art works. Too often, though, as in many of the prints in this book, nothing is risked and nothing is gained.

In his own introduction to the book, Robinson approvingly quotes his mother saying 'Plain Jane and no nonsense'. It is a statement he applies to the Red Studio prints and it embodies one facet of the tension one observes in Robinson's work as a whole – where his hedonistic colourist's skills are opposed by a rigorous Calvinism that somehow mistrusts art and much prefers craft. It now seems probable that the solution of this conflict will be the base on which we will eventually value Robinson's career as a whole.

David Herkt - 30th December 2009

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