Still sacred lives, Helen Watson White

Red Studio: Forty-five Prints
John Z Robinson
Longacre Press, $39.99,
ISBN 9781877460388

John Z Robinson is an artist in many media, and in two major modes. One is the ebullient use of colour in free-style painting; the other the witty, singular and exact concentration of effect in jewellery and linocut prints.

Parallel Lines: Riding the Central Otago Rail Trail (2007) presented Annie Villiers’ poems with acrylic collages by Robinson in painterly mode. Now Longacre Press has followed those 25 splashy, vivacious landscapes with a 45-print collection that is so different it appears to be by another artist. It comes, however, from the same practised hand. Both books are solidly intentional, yet have the same lightness. Both celebrate a freedom which artists know – despite the appearance that Robinson’s paintings are about to fly off the page – to be a freedom within bounds.

Those bounds are chosen – and purposefully. The first booklet of Robinson reproductions, Other Men’s Flowers (2003), repeated the diptych format Robinson gave his painting-series of that name: he juxtaposed portraits of male heads with portraits of flowers, choosing colours from a spectrum audaciously broad. By using the flower correspondence, he broke the box of conventional ideas of masculine beauty. Having set himself bounds – a task, a process, a format – he then broke other ones that had been only assumed.

Following that groundbreaking portraiture, Robinson’s series of 29 male nudes was published (by Aucklander Brent Coutts) last year. The figure paintings, no longer half-a-diptych (though remembrance of flowers seems to hover in the colourings), showed an even greater freedom than the heads. These semi-abstract studies in masculine sensuality were simply ravishing; the word “portrait” joined to the word “male” would never be the same again.

The ecstatic abandonment of the nudes, however, takes attention away from their basis in artistic choice, the discipline of craft. Red Studio, in an autobiographical presentation of selected prints from the last 30 years, redresses the balance in our perceptions of freedom and self-limitation in practice. Robinson’s notes on each work are disarmingly plain, telling the story of a life in art: what it means to go to a bench every day and make something.

Novelist Laurence Fearnley introduces the artist through his jewellery, its plain-spoken power illustrated by a brooch with the Fauvist figure of a man dancing. Robinson offers a brief  tour of the book’s compass, from the nature of linoleum, through the German Expressionists who first worked it, to his time at art school and purchase of a small press and roll of brown lino, and his love for the “simple and straightforward graphic expression” made possible by a few basic tools.

The first item is an icon. While Robinson relates how British lino-artist Claude Flight (who made gouges from umbrella ribs) believed lino-printing was the great new democratic art form, I am transfixed by the stripped-down image of a portable record-player: open but empty, netting in the lid for 45s, ridged turn-on knob, turntable, spike, needle-arm, lock, handle. You can just about hear the voices of girls in the photos on the walls. So begins a major strand of small celebrations of ordinary things. Pictures of a front lawn, hedge and neighbours’ houses in Kaitangata, a studio’s rooftop view (Supermarket Carpark), railway huts (Caberfeidh, Poolburn Gorge) and portraits like Red Cat 1986 seem to me to distil the sacredness of the ordinary, as do the many still lifes of flowers.

The still life – far from its sense in French: nature morte, dead nature – is to Robinson “a perfect metaphor for life in the twenty-first century”. Never taking himself too seriously, however, Robinson makes comical versions of everything, including this particular art-icon. Along with a radiantly beautiful print of  Begonias (a tribute to Rodney Kennedy, whose green bowl is also immortalised), he offers A Bunch of Amy Bocks (2006), the con-artist’s head multiplied, with lilies, in a stainless-steel kettle. As his Ned Kelly series is represented in a reworked cut, thus is his legend-filled Amy Bock foray.

There’s breadth in this slim volume. Robinson’s works have become theatre posters, flags for causes, covers for books; the delightful hand-coloured Seascape and Townscape abstracts represent his designs for backing-curtains for Twelfth Night. Although I love the punning word-prints, the androgynous figures, the geometry of iconic landscapes and the rehashed pop-art, my favourite image in the book is a tiny monoprint, freely reworking a clichéd Shakespeare portrait: “I drew my Shakespeare onto an inked piece of lino, using the blade of a small flat chisel.” Simple as that for this Renaissance man.


Helen Watson White is a Dunedin writer and photographer.


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