Chicago

Nathaniel Robinson, Untitled, 2016, oil on canvas, 15 × 22".

Nathaniel Robinson, Untitled, 2016, oil on canvas, 15 × 22".

Nathaniel Robinson

Devening Projects

In “The Sensible Range,” his 2013 exhibition at Chicago’s Devening Projects, Nathaniel Robinson offered up an installation of simplified vernacular sculptures. Last year, in his exhibition at New York’s Magenta Plains, “No One’s Things,” he deployed scale shifts and graphic color to highlight the uncanny in the shapes of disposable cups, a milk jug, and a pup tent. Robinson’s most recent exhibition at Devening Projects was straightforwardly titled “Paintings” and marked a departure from deftly crafted trompe l’oeil objects to representational paintings. Even in this shift, Robinson proved adept at extracting a complex range of sentiments from unspectacular things. He culled the imagery in all twelve new canvases from train trips he took between New York City and his home in Brewster, New York. Each horizontal composition is bereft of human figures, instead framing a landscape of set-back houses, commercial properties, and sprawling vegetation. Although these are not captivating vistas, the lack of foreground information and the use of an elevated viewpoint idealize the abstracted elements that inhabit the marginalized zone between the moving train and the unremarkable landscape outside its window.

The paintings were hung in the long, narrow gallery such that two were side by side on the far wall and five were distributed along each flanking wall. The symmetrical installation and similar sizes of the works (most measured roughly sixteen by twenty-four inches) established a uniform cadence that implied a filmic progression from picture to picture. A consistent palette of greens, blues, grays, and pale browns reinforced their connectedness. The first painting on the right, from 2016 (all works Untitled), held the key to the project’s structure. Here, a distinct linear element cut horizontally through the top section of the dusky-blue gestural landscape, suggesting a mullion in the train window or an electrical wire running beside the tracks. This continuous line established lateral movement while also separating the loosely articulated countryside, otherwise disrupted only by a red edifice.

Many of Robinson’s experiments in this medium seem to explore the harmonious quality of horizontality. A rhythmic 2016 composition featured a lineup of wooden fence samples on the far side of a chartreuse field of grass. These white and beige fence designs—each accented with a modest finial—are tightly painted, in contrast to the severely minimal geometries of a warehouse eclipsing the wooded background and the gestural brushwork of the distant trees and foreground turf. In the middle ground, a tapered shadow emerges from the painting’s left edge, parallel to the fence—and to the imagined railroad tracks from which Robinson would have glimpsed this scene. With these nuanced, heightened formal translations, the artist elevates the prosaic trackside acreage that clutters the periphery of our urban areas.

The two paintings juxtaposed on the far back wall, from 2016 and 2017, represented the poles of Robinson’s visual language. On the left, in the newer composition, a flurry of contrasting dark-blue marks gave way to a raw-umber flourish in the very center. This glow of interior light, issuing from a small, window-like shape, was encompassed by organic motifs that suggested the face of a low building. Once again, horizontal bands organized the picture, yet its nocturnal atmosphere dissolved the solidity of the architecture. By comparison, the piece to the right vividly portrayed two American Foursquare-style dwellings awash in warm light, set against a cloudless sky. Between the houses and the train was an expanse of terrain snarled with tree branches rendered in wild strokes. These bending, flexing limbs were at odds with the discrete and unyielding forms of the domiciles anchoring the painting’s middle ground. Objective realism is not Robinson’s goal, nor is creating a Metro-North travelogue. In kinship with Maureen Gallace, who paints regional landscapes, Robinson withholds the details that make things unremarkable and exaggerates the abstract qualities that build a compelling image. And as with his sculptures, we find ourselves taking a second look at what is in plain sight.