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Exhibition review: Bill Robinson's perspectives, place and memory

By David Malouf - posted Friday, 17 October 2003

Some time ago, in writing about the way first places shape the way we read and map the world, I suggested some ways in which the topography of Brisbane, which as we know is a very hilly place, all steep ascents and gullies, may have influenced the sensibility and thinking patterns of those of us who grew up here. You climb to the top of a street in Brisbane and there is a view. You climb to the top of the next and the view is different. In such a place you come to expect a landscape to provide a variety of views and maybe you extend this and expect the mind itself to produce a variety of views. Other cities work otherwise. In flat cities like Adelaide or Melbourne views are long, they carry you straight to the horizon.

What I wanted to suggest on that occasion was that growing up in Brisbane may have created a particular way of looking at things in the writers who grew up here - Peter Porter, Gwen Harwood, John Blight, Thea Astley, to mention just a few, and the word I hit on to describe this was "baroque".

Bill Robinson grew up in this city at pretty much the same time I did, in the late '30s and early '40s; we are close contemporaries and I have for a long time been an admirer of his work. But till the launch of his exhibition we had never met. That too says something about Brisbane. Artists here, and ever more, writers, tend to grow up in isolation, without in most cases ever discovering those who, at the same time, are moving round the city in pursuit of the same interests. They go their own way, develop their own idiosyncratic tastes and enthusiasms. And this seems especially true of an artist as original, as one-off, as much his own man as Bill Robinson.


So, to begin with that word "baroque".

It can, as we know, mean wayward, elaborate, theatrical, playful, and Bill Robinson's work, I think, is all these. Think of the comic "dressing-up" of the self-portraits. Think of all those feathery angelic forms we get in the landscapes and skyscapes, the upward gaze into a sky-space that is a theatre of extravagant happenings, the soaring effects, the energy that swirls around inside the paintings and sometimes pours out of the frame, the frothy turmoil and fluid interchange-ability of forms, of water, rocks, sky, or of up for down, and the way the process of growth in a Robinson landscape, as in the real vegetative world in Southern Queensland, seems so rapid that we feel we can actually see, in a moment of slowed-down time, the transformation of one stage into the next. All that we might very easily call "baroque". But I am thinking of something different.

One of the minor masters of the Italian Baroque is the priest painter Andrea Pozzo. Pozzo specialises in ceiling paintings that embody a special effect - some of you may have seen his masterpiece, which is in the Jesuit church of St Ignazio in Rome.

Looked at from any but one particular point on the floor of the church, Pozzo's paintings reel and swirl and make no sense. But the moment the viewer, in moving round the church, finds the one right spot to stand in, the space of the painting reorganises itself in a flash, and in a remarkable coup d'oeil which is also a coup de theatre, the flat surface rears up and becomes a dome on perspective columns through which we look clear into Heaven. The theatre in which this takes place is the viewer. The viewer in collaboration with the painter is the creator of a unique event. But all this depends on the painting having a single point of perspective that the viewer must find. Only when he moves into it, only when the painter has manipulated him into it, does the painting come fully into existence so that its vision works.

I'm reminded of this in Bill Robinson's work, but only by contrast. Here too it is hard to find a point of view from which the painting, perspectively, will cohere and produce a single effect, for the very good reason that there is none. What there is are multiple views that exist in the same moment, and what the viewer is invited to do - just as Pozzo forces his viewer to find the single integrating view - is to become a multiple viewer, to become multiple, capable of seeing things from several places at the same time, or from the one place at several times simultaneously, and to find this truer perhaps to real experience - the experience of being in the landscape and part of its process of change, of becoming - than what we get in more conventional paintings.

Pozzo asks his viewer to give up his subjective world to the revelation the painting offers, and the moment of revelation is in the discovery of the source of all meaning as outside him, in the one true objective view of God. Robinson takes us in the opposite direction. He invites the viewer to go inward. To discover how subjective vision is. How multiple the world can be seen, and how multiple the viewer himself may be - I'm thinking again of the self-portraits - how multiple he may need to become if he is to see the world as it really is.


I don't think any of us would deny an element of the sublime in Robinson's work, and of the religious in the feeling his works inspire in us; or at least of the revelatory. But they are also highly theatrical, and in the sense that theatre involves play, they are wonderfully playful. The Baroque, too, found theatre, with its dependence on illusion, a natural place for the enactment of religious feeling, and playfulness - play - a natural activity of the religious spirit. I have always been struck by the fact that the French word "spirituel" also means "witty", as if there were no difference, in the way spirit impinges on us, between what belongs to profound revelation and that lighter business, that play of mind, that we call wit. Bill Robinson would appear to have grasped this instinctively, and from the start.

Lightness, in every sense, seems to me to be essential to Robinson's work; but for all its playfulness, its obsession with sky-forms and sky, it is wonderfully down-to-earth. That is the paradox that is so compelling in him and brings us back and back to the mystery of what he does. In his version of Eden, Bill and Shirley have chores to do, their days are tied to the needs of their beasts. It is a place of comic desperation. The cows seem never to have got the message about gravity; they are always threatening to levitate and float off. The corrugated-iron sheets of the huts seem animated by a spirit of centrifugal devilment. What grounds them, since gravity can't do it, is lightness - humour. Or is it simply the thickness of the paint? And surprising and challenging as this may be, it also seems right. This is the way things are, down here, in this bit of Eden. Sublime but haphazard. And the one thing we have to hang on to is our lack of gravity. Lightness is all.

But there is something more to say - in some ways the most important thing of all. And that is the huge pleasure these works bring to the senses, in their world of paint, the play of paint on the canvas in brush-strokes and texture, the illusionistic conjuring with the effects of light and air, and the technical virtuosity, which is so easy and uninsistent that it looks like nature. This exhibition is especially rich in offering us work in many different forms: etchings, watercolours, pastels, lithographs.

Finally, this. We often speak of an artist's gift, and what we mean is what he has been endowed with. But the phrase has another sense, and it is worth sometimes mentioning that as well: the artist's gift to us of his vision of the world, his vision of the world remade. We know that artists can be outsiders, and impossible egotists - or some of them are. But we should also see in the gifts they offer us an essential generosity, and our own first reaction to any artist's gift - before we criticise or dispraise or reject - should be a recognition of that generosity and an equal generosity of gratitude in return. All the more when the gift, as in Bill Robinson's case, is so rich and enlarging.

Place and Memory: The Graphic Work of William Robinson
12 September - 7 December 2003
Touring nationally to February 2005
QUT Cultural Precinct, Art Museum
2 George Street, Brisbane (next to City Botanic Gardens)
Entry free. Open Tues-Fri 10am-4pm, Sat-Sun 12noon-4pm
Ph 07 3864 5370

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This is a speech presented on the occasion of the opening of Place and Memory: The Graphic Work of William Robinson on 11 September 2003.

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About the Author

Daivid Malouf is the multi-award winning author of An Imaginary Life and The Great World.

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