New York

Walter Robinson, White Castle, 2013, acrylic on paper, 9 x 12".

Walter Robinson, White Castle, 2013, acrylic on paper, 9 x 12".

Walter Robinson

Dorian Grey Gallery

Walter Robinson, White Castle, 2013, acrylic on paper, 9 x 12".

Among the fifty-six “Indulgences” displayed in Walter Robinson’s recent show were paintings of sandwiches, french fries, cookies, pinups, beer, and whiskey, along with those of daily medication, painkillers, and nasal spray. (One painting was from 1997, the rest from between 2009 and 2013.) All are presumably consumed by Robinson, suggesting that the paintings have an implicit “confessional” character. Together, they give the impression of having been created by a studious monk contemplating his sins, painting them in an act of aborted contrition. Many of the works are peculiarly “self-indulgent” by reason of their lush painterliness, while the handling in others is flat and restrained, as though Robinson was trying hard not to give in to temptation. In the latter group, the objects are isolated, seemingly forlorn and untouchable. The obliquely autobiographical character of these works is accompanied by social critique. Big America, 2010, depicting a calorie-rich sandwich, as unhealthily obese as many Americans have become, says it all: Bigger is not always better.

The things painted are automatically memorable owing to their massculture prominence, the brushwork memorable because it reenacts the contradiction between what Alfred Barr famously called the geometrical and nongeometrical abstraction that informs modernism: Robinson’s images tend to have a succinctness and clarity, even when their cup runneth over with gestural fervor. Paintings of female nudes carry forward Robinson’s recent “Romance” series, 2009, although the canvases in this show were less boldly painted, suggesting a certain disillusionment. They are much smaller in size, less glamorous, more routine. The other paintings in the exhibition sometimes ambitiously emulated Giorgio Morandi; at other times they satirized Duchamp’s “assisted readymades.” More pointedly, Robinson’s O’Doul’s Non- Alcoholic Sixpack and Two Sixpacks (Non-Alcoholic), both 2011, recalled Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze, 1960.

Robinson has been said to be a neo-Pop painter, and like Pop artists he takes on “high art” in an attempt to level the playing field. Romance (Cézanne), 2013, for example, proposes we take slick, stereotypical, mass-reproducible “portraits”—the painting shows the cover of a romance-novel paperback—as seriously as we are taught to take Cézanne’s portraits. Robinson attempts to integrate the (populist) “low” with the (elitist)“high” by “aesthetically finessing” the former with painterliness, making it more tasteful and distinctive, more appealing to the contemplative mind than to the hungry eye. He adds nourishment to empty-calorie imagery, makes what is physically bad for us aesthetically good. He invites us to linger over anonymous “fast food” by giving it a personal touch. But is that just another way of advertising it? Robinson’s paintings are stuck on the horns of a dilemma. The notion that a product must be an “aesthetic experience” is commonplace in marketing. Beautifying the banal until one can no longer distinguish between the beautiful and the banal has become paradigmatic in both mass and high culture—the two have seamlessly fused.

Donald Kuspit