Robert Linsley

Felix Ringel

At first glance, Robert Linsley’s abstract images, reminiscent of the ’50s, seem harmless. But are they? They pose far too many questions for that. For example, how were they actually made? Are they the result of a technical process or of the artist’s handiwork? They seem too smooth to have been made with a brush. Could they have been airbrushed? Printed, perhaps with a computer? But then the color wouldn’t be so vivid. So what kind of paint is this?—too shiny to be oil, too dull to be enamel. And the forms of the colored areas raise more questions: Are they abstract, or do they depict something? Could they be, say, a computer-generated graphic representation of some statistical study?

In fact the muted colors of the red, black, brownish yellow, brown, pink, green, and blue violet forms were not applied with a brush or a palette knife, nor were they printed. They are products of accident. Linsley, a Canadian artist, drips enamel house paint enriched with lacquer on a canvas prepared with a white (or sometimes light blue or pink) ground. Then he lifts the canvas over his head or in front of him with both arms, shaking and tipping it. The color flows and is distributed across the surface of the painting, which is always the same size, seventy-two inches high by sixty inches wide, the breadth of which is the length of Linsley’s outstretched arms. Their aleatory nature gives these abstractions both their strength and their sense of irony: strength because they expand the practice of painting with a new way of using chance, irony because they mock the classical understanding of abstract painting, which asserted the artist’s control. Even Jackson Pollock did not, as we have learned in recent years, rely on chance, having learned to control the textures of his drip paintings. But are Linsley’s images any more a matter of chance than Pollock’s? After all, it is the artist who determines the initial placement of the paint and the angle of the canvas. It is hard to say in advance only whether the fluid color will follow this angle and to what extent.

Linsley’s paintings have surprisingly descriptive titles like Island Development, 2001, Off the West Coast, 1999, or Early Winter’s Passage, 1999, which one immediately associates with landscapes. In fact, the artist makes a point of mentioning islands when talking about his colorful splotches. He says that he would like someday to write a story about a trip through his imaginary islands with their fantastic figures. Color fields as islands? In the modem abstract tradition forms weren’t supposed to be representational. They stood only for themselves. In Linsley’s paintings, too, the abstract form—by necessity because of its manner of creation—represents nothing, nor is it a reflection of visible reality, yet it is a form that can be associated with the idea of an island. But what exactly is the relationship between an abstract form and a linguistic concept? What are the rules of the game by which concepts are assigned to forms? What agreement is there between an abstract form and an equally abstract linguistic concept? The endlessness of these questions suggests that Linsley’s paintings are anything but harmless.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.