Andrew Cornell Robinson ‘s website indicates: “art + crafts research studio.” Largely known as a prolific ceramicist, Robinson’s oeuvre embraces a wide range of craft and design methods – resulting in an extensive body of drawings and diverse mixed media installations, all the way to performance. Throughout our multiple conversations I have been increasingly intrigued by his multi faceted imagination and asked him to learn more about his visual explorations.
AS: Let’s talk a bit about yourself first – where did you grow up?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: I was born in Camden, New Jersey and raised on the outskirts of New York City, where I was apprenticed at the age of ten and spent eight years working in a ceramics studio. It planted a seed in my mind about the inherent value of working with one’s hands. A partial scholarship to art school in Baltimore, offered a way out of small town life. As a major in ceramics, I also studied drawing and sculpture, which altogether led me abroad to the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. I moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts where I got my MFA.
AS: What are some major milestones in your life /art journey?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: I was fortunate to meet some brilliant artists in New York including Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Diane Torr, Frank Moore, Judy Pfaff, Frank Holliday, Juana Valdes and Paul Cadmus, et al; each of whom made an impact upon my work. In particular, the late playwright Edward Albee generously invited me to his foundation in Montauk, where I worked as an artist in residence. It was a wonderful place to experiment and focus on making art each day. It resulted in a series of small ceramic sculptures and “Society Portraits” comprised of drawings examining class, a theme that continues to run through my work.
AS: I think it is safe to describe you as a “multi-disciplinary” artist – you make ceramic sculptures, installations, paintings, and drawings with great fluidity between these disciplines. What can you tell me about that and your process in general?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Yes, I think it is safe to say that I’m a bit of a polymath. My interests and education in ceramic, sculpture and drawing gave me an appreciation of craft. Working through different media allows me to stretch an idea and see how it transforms through drawing, sculpture, clay, collaborations, costumes, performance or printmaking. There is an inclination toward the theatrical in my work.
Like a great performance, each time an idea is translated through a material or process, a network of images emerges; connected to each other like fragments of a narrative offering insights through a broad vocabulary honestly reflecting the way the world appears to me – tumultuous, diverse, joyful, dangerous, tragic, complex, queer and beautiful.
AS: From my visit to your studio, it is pretty apparent that drawing is a crucial constant in all your work. Can you tell me about the role of drawing in your process?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Drawing is a constant for me. I have kept a sketchbook for most of my adult life. I draw in it every day. After I left school, I didn’t have a studio so I promised myself that I would draw regularly, thinking that if I didn’t continue to make something each day I would lose my mind. So, each day when I rode the subway, I would draw who or whatever was in my field of vision between one or two stops. This daily practice forced me to look and draw quickly. There was no time to be precious. Having to make a mark and deal with the hustle and bustle of the moving train, and life on its own terms, forced me to draw gesturally, and out of that emerged a line quality that feels vital.
Thankfully, this daily drawing habit of mine has spanned well over twenty years. I have amassed a collection of thousands of drawings. Lately I have been looking back over all of this work, seeking out patterns across time and line, looking for themes and gathering collections of imagery for a series of larger works on paper. I imagine what you saw in the studio the other day, were some of these drawings. It is a joyful thing to do each day.
AS: Ceramics has been considered “craft” even way after Picasso has experimented with it in the mid -20th century. How do you see the fairly recent renaissance in Ceramic sculpture and your work in this context?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Ceramics has a nearly universal appeal because of the ways that each of us responds to it: making emotional associations through artifacts – a favorite mug, a cherished bowl, a significant memory. The sentimental appeal of things is something that I am cultivating in my work. I also ask questions related to personal and socio-political ideas such as: What is that emotional / mysterious something or other that separates an art object from an everyday artifact? How does the material or visual form trigger an association for the viewer? How does an idea stay open to allow others to project their own lived experience?
As much as I am seduced by the nostalgia of craft traditions, I make a point of seeking balance across form and craft so that it supports the inherent poetry within my work.
AS: Can you give me an example?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: “Bloodlines” is an interdisciplinary project that led me to be more conscientious of the conceptual underpinnings of craft and materiality. That project included ceramics, sculpture and costumes created as artifacts belonging to a pair of fictional queer revolutionaries and presented as an exhibition framed as a revisionist historical society. There was a common theme across multiple materials and processes of making that pointed to a new way of thinking about craft as a conceptual strategy.
AS: Can you elaborate on how you see your work in relation to the increasingly elusive line between commercial / craft/ design-oriented art and “fine” art?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: I am interested in making with a deep attention to materials – motivated by aesthetic and conceptual explorations of desire, behavior or belief, but always through materials. Design and craft tend to be systematic in nature, and that appeal to me. I generally ignore the elusive lines that separate disciplines, and I like to ritualize the creative process.
The disciplinary distinctions between design, craft and art have never made much sense to me. Perhaps it’s because I cut my teeth working with my hands, learning from artisans who taught me to work through the material, technical, aesthetic and conceptual challenges simultaneously. I’m eternally grateful for that way of thinking through making.
AS: How do you see “design” in context of your work process?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Looking across my work spanning art, craft, and design methods, I developed a “Persona” as another way for me to approach making things. The design persona, a tool employed by industrial designers, takes the form of an archetypal person who has needs and goals that are referenced in order to create requirements for a particular project. For example, think of an archetype of a flight attendant in the 1960s, who has a need to quickly traverse a busy airport to make a connecting flight, all the while lugging a heavy suitcase. Out of this persona, a designer might identify an opportunity to put wheels, a telescoping handle on the suitcase, and voila – the rolling suitcase is born.
I thought about making art for the needs and goals of a persona ostensibly outside of myself as liberating, because it freed me from the tyranny of the “original” idea. Many of the projects in my studio over the past ten years have begun this way. Often, they are inspired by radical, revolutionary and queer characters, based on historical or literary figures.
AS: Tell me more about your fictional characters.
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Jean Genet, Jeanette Winterson, Christopher Isherwood, and Charles Dickens all offer interesting characters that resonate with my desire to make room for queer and radical voices that are usually silenced. For example, Charlotte, one character that I developed, was a mash-up of Charlotte Corday, the French assassin of Jean Paul Marat; Divine, the transvestite in John Waters’ films; and the Dickensian antagonists Madame Defarge and Miss. Havisham.
I used Charlotte as a starting point to collaborate on the creation of a corseted gown that I wore while embroidering the names of oligarchs in braille. Wearing this gown, I sang an a capella version of “Bésame Mucho” (“Kiss me a lot”) by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez, which the jazz composer Brett Sroka transformed into a looping chant called “Bésame Macho”. It accompanied my exhibition of prints, photographs, drawings, ceramic and sculpture at Art During the Occupation Gallery .
AS: Let’s go back to your personal history. You mentioned in our previous conversations that you are coming from “Mayflower” pilgrims. Deep roots in the American dream. You seem to mine that mythical Americana heritage throughout your work. What are your thoughts there?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Mythical? There’s nothing mythical about it. Yes, it is true. Some of my ancestors did indeed come over on the Mayflower. I could be a member of the “Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution” if I bothered to pay my membership dues. I can’t take any credit for their successes or shortcomings. It’s a miracle the pilgrims survived that first winter. They were anything but prepared. Still, they had their faith, and they also had cannons, so that seemed to help when they occupied the land of the indigenous peoples on what became Provincetown.
I am interested in history – it is intriguing and filled with tragic and comic lessons. I am also interested in who gets left out of history. As a gay man, married to a first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic, I am all too aware of the erasure of people, events and ideas from history. It usually happens as a result of peoples’ apathy in the face of an ideological and fanatical revision of history, particularly on religious or avaricious grounds. So, I look at history and my own family’s histories as an opportunity for revision, metaphor and satire.
AS: I am curious to know more about the other narratives in your work. Besides the Americana, where do they come from?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Class and social critique are an undercurrent within my work. I did a series of works exploring disobedience in opposition to systems of power, starting just after the financial collapse in 2008. I was working on Wall Street at the time, designing propaganda for the financial industry. It was hard to keep a straight face as I watched the way some of my clients responded with bluster and denial to the accurate criticisms that would arise out of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.
At that time, I was reading a book titled “On Disobedience” by Erich Fromm and looking at the art works of Max Beckman and James Ensor, whose drawings and paintings are filled with a stinging social critique. I created a series of drawings and sculptures of unheroic monuments – derelict, deposed, and self-contained riot-in-a-box titled “Disobedience.”
AS: Can you tell me more about this project?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: It was prescient, as it was made prior to the OWS encampment at Zuccotti Park. This wooden clam-shell box contains miniature blue police barricades, surrounding ceramic forms made by squeezing my fist around a handful of clay. Half of the clay objects hold picket signs aloft, and the other half lay impotently on their side.
It is a dark and playful work, reflecting on some of the tension in our culture on a disarmingly small scale. Because I have often seen myself as the outsider with respect to class, politics, and sexuality, that even when I pass as an insider, I am drawn to the transgressive.
One of the elements that engage me in your work is an outrageous humor, or satire, underscored with soulful darkness. Can you talk about that?
I seek out the perverse, the absurd, the outrageous, the campy. Beneath all things comic there is something tragic or dark. I have often enjoyed the comedic energy of Robin Williams, but his unnerving portrayal of a psychopathic photo developer and obsessed stalker of a middle-class family in the film “One Hour Photo” was much funnier to me. I suppose my sense of humor finds more satisfaction in the John Waters of the world. There are so few of them, and they make life more interesting.
AS: I would love to know more about your shrine-based work, including the “Wishful Thinking” series – can you shed more light on your source material and thought process?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: “Wishful Thinking” was the title of my last solo exhibition in Philadelphia. The exhibition included a series of ceramic grottos, reliquaries and gilded hot-poured glass in cursive script. Messages like “Be Salted Not Sugared”, “Sin”, and “Wishful Thinking” shimmered on the wall around a series of small shrines and ceramic alcoves covered in glaze and slumped glass.
After the world trade center came crumbling down, make-shift shrines sprouted up across the city with prayers and pleas of “have you seen my daughter, mother, son, husband…” It was heartbreaking. I am fascinated with how people came together in such a tender way in the aftermath of that awful day. “Wishful Thinking” was in part a reflection upon the memory of those makeshift shrines.
AS: From our conversations it is pretty clear that you are passionate about your role as an art educator. Can you share what was your own school experience?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: In school, it was very difficult for me to learn to read, so I learned mostly by looking at things. As an illiterate kid with dyslexia and a rebellious streak, the opportunities I got through an art education gave me some much-needed direction to a rudderless start in life. I was fortunate to be a beneficiary of the Guggenheim Learning Through Art program. I was a gawky little kid on the free lunch program riding the short bus to school each morning, along with my fellow classmates; a motley crew of misfits, head-cases and the mentally disabled.
Expectations were low. I had a teacher who got a grant to build a dark room and invite an artist from the city to teach us how to shoot, develop and hand color black and white photographs. We learned to read by writing stories about those photographs. It was the first time that reading made sense to me, because it began with making an image.
AS: I would love to hear more about this experience.
Andrew Cornell Robinson: At the conclusion of that year, this group of oddball children was corralled onto a bus to visit the Guggenheim Museum. We walked into the lobby and I looked up to see that wild spiral, and up the ramp we went, past the Joseph Beuys retrospective. I think it was 1979. His work was a revelation – Huge blocks of lard, felt, vitrines, chalkboards covered in cryptic writing and drawings. I really freaked out. It was amazing. Then, at the top of the spiral we were confronted by display of all of the photographs my classmates and I had made. This educational program did a lot to build up our group – kids who had been written off by most of the adults in our lives. I am forever grateful for that experience.
AS: Can you tell me about an educational art project you are particularly fond of?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Today, I try to pay that back by teaching art and design, often informed by Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture and John Cage’s intuitive yet systematic approach to experimental composition. One example of a sculpture project I worked on with my students was a potluck meal to be shared on the last day of class. The students designed the menu, place settings, cloth napkins, ceramic tableware, and utensils, and we ate a meal together on a table constructed for the occasion. It was a fantastic project exploring craft and culture through the common ground of food.
AS: What are you working on now?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: A project I am currently developing is tentatively called “the Congregation of Wits.” It is inspired in part by the Pasquino, the oldest of the Talking Statues of Rome, which speak through a multitude of satirical messages – anonymously pasted, taped and tacked to its pedestal by citizens of Rome. Since the fourteenth century this form of protest against religious and civil authorities has persisted, reflecting upon our troubled and wonderful world.
I envision this project as comprised of one thousand drawings and messages, each printed into a modular typographic grid of double-sided rectangles – image on one side, text on the other. The images and words would then be attached over a sculptural substrate. I am still exploring the form that this will take, but I imagine that the images will cover an object, like the many layers of wheat-pasted posters, covering the walls of an urban landscape.