Rick Robinson works in steel and mixed media, creating graphically sleek but also raw, gestural images that recall petroglyphic or totemic figures but reference the allure of Pop art and the quirks of modern life. His knack for a pared down visual vernacular that is somehow both simple and direct as well as emotional and mysterious could rightly be said to have been honed during years spent as a creative force in the outdoor graphics business. This flows both ways however, as Robinson has dedicated that career to the reclaiming of walls and billboards for the space of independent art and public culture — supporting countless artists over the years, and most recently through the nonprofit voter education project he founded and whose key image is both personally inspired and historically-minded.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
RICK ROBINSON: First memories. Coming aware of an innate and deep-rooted urge to visually document, replicate, create and communicate. An early sense of being “different” from other kids. My mother recalls my 2nd grade teacher telling her I was, “more interested in the eraser on my pencil than anything she had to say.”
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
I call it Primitive Pop. I’m inspired by ancient icons, the use of silhouettes and representing them in modern materials — steel, polymer, acrylic. I’m successful if I’ve captured a moment or movement of gestural intent that turns a head and begs a question.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
Probably feeling lost while struggling with the crushing banality of daily human survival. Either that or a preacher, politician or stockbroker.
Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?
Sort of. I worked five years in a steel mill after high school. Moved to San Francisco to study Marketing & Studio Arts at SF State. I eventually dropped out to go into the billboard business in 1986. In my lens billboards are magnificent works of public sculpture, glorious with steel, wood, paint, lights and commerce. In the end my art school was born from a life immersed in the early loft culture of S.F., Oakland the DTLA Arts District before it was officially named as such. Two mentors challenged the purpose of my work and helped me respect the walls — performance artist Skip Arnold and painter Richard Godfrey.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
Elsewhere? What keeps me in L.A. is the strange mix of cars, freeways, strip malls, silicone, sunshine, magical bullshit, and bubble-head optimism. There’s a magnetic alchemy in the result of most everyone coming here to be something or someone else.
When was your first show?
First legit solo show dropped in Venice Beach in 1997 at the lovely half a dozen rose gallery. Surprisingly, my next solo show was one year later in Ghent, Belgium at the Waterfront Gallery. I’ve been lucky to simply keep showing since. Honestly, I’ve rarely asked for shows or been circumspect about where. They keep coming and I keep saying yes and responding with more work. I’ve been told I could have been more serious or managed my career better. Maybe so. Truth is I never wanted to give up my billboard career. Both have given me an ever-ready public canvas and both rely on pretty much the same toolkit.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
Last gallery show was at Castelli Art Space this past December/January with other steel sculptors — Laddie John Dill, Mark Walsh, Rob Grad and Greg Orloff. Current show is on the streets of L.A., NYC and 25 other U.S. cities for VoteAsIf.org. The Pink Fist visual will manifest for some time as sculptures and other outputs, as I tend to fetish and get repetitive…
What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?
Rothko. There’s a ruthless discipline in his work. He gives the viewer almost nothing while also delivering the whole of your world. Showing with him would be thrilling and terrifying. Keith Haring would make me feel the same way for different reasons, but I’m sure he would be much nicer about it.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so what?
Yes. Iggy Pop and the Stooges. The Funhouse cut has never lost an inch. Coltrane’s Love Supreme. Bach Cello Suites is hypnotic when you are thriving and inspired in the thick of the work. Betty Blowtorch, L7, or Bikini Kill always triggers a little extra swagger…