By Robert L. Pincus

Becky Robbins speaks about her art as the outgrowth of a desire to “create one’s own journey.” 1 The paintings in question, her seductive Yugen series, aren’t overtly narrative, so the question becomes what kind of journey is this? There is no imagery in the paintings themselves that conveys a journey as an explicit preoccupation or theme. What she renders, instead, are clusters of images, each detailed, each intriguing in its own right and each seemingly separate from those around it; intermittently, phrases appear among them, like interjections or ruminations concerning her view of what we see and her perspective about it.

In the painting, The Revolution of Consciousness, there are these words in Latin, ornately displayed: Per aspera ad astra. The phrase is generally translated as “through struggle to the stars” or “through hardships to the stars.” Whatever the translation, the phrase carries with it a sense of hard won optimism. Adversity, her work suggests to us, carries with it the potential for fulfillment and enlightenment, emotional as well as spiritual. In a time pervaded by irony and cynicism, Robbins strikes a hopeful tone — but not a naive one. For those like me, who lean toward a skeptical view of history and our evolution, these paintings are a kind of visual tonic. Her passion is persuasive and infectious. These works aspire to transcend our ability to translate them into interpretive phrases. Choosing Yugen as her series title makes this clear with her description of this important term from Japanese aesthetics as “an awareness of the Universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words.” 2 Though she provides useful written commentary about them, she wants them to be compelling enough to stand alone, which they do. Mystery and depth are central to the concept of Yugen and Robbins is clearly inspired by these intertwined tenets of it.

Thus, before we even concern ourselves with the nature of her journey and its symbolic structure, I urge you simply to enjoy the visual plentitude of the images, the sheer profusion of them in all their variety. There is wordless pleasure in the ebullience of her palette, in the sheer variety of forms that populate these paintings: trees, flowers, hearts, skeletons, insects and radiolarians among them. She has a keen eye not only for individual forms but for the way an arrangement of them on the canvas produces a tranquil effect on the viewer.

The style of these recent paintings also speaks of connectedness, though those bonds are complex and not always obvious. In fact, your first impression of a given painting might be of a series of forms, floating in pictorial space, largely separate from each other. But connections are there to be made. Consider the array of chosen forms in The Revolution of Consciousness, the eighth painting in the Yugen series. Many represent the natural world: a rose, a heart, a sea horse, a bird and so forth. Looking further at this painting, it becomes clear that Robbins includes many natural forms, but other things complement them. There is a stream of musical notes moving through the middle of the painting; also, rope, intermittently knotted, functioning as bold line. Further, there is a word in Japanese, to which she draws our attention in comments about this painting on her website: kintsukuroi is a technique in ceramics that relates to the kind of journey Robbins conceives of with these paintings. 3 Also known as kintsugi, it is the process of joining pieces of a broken ceramic pot or vessel with lacquer that has been dusted with powdered gold, silver or platinum. The cracks aren’t hidden; instead, they become part of the style of the object, in its new guise.

The cracked and reassembled ceramic vessel can be seen as a metaphor for her method in these paintings. In a world split apart by our abuses of nature and of our place within it, art can hint at ways of reimagining it, cracks and all. It isn’t a stretch for to see that the act of painting, of placing the forms that she does within any given composition, as the equivalent of the pieces in such ceramics. The lines of rope are akin to seams between them and by extension, so is the viewer’s process of making connections between chosen items in a painting. As Robbins commented in a filmed interview in her studio, “They [viewers] can have their own storyline” when it comes to her work. 4

Robbins’ journey isn’t a literal odyssey but a poetic sojourn. One useful precedent: Whitman’s great long poem “Song of Myself,” in which his narrator (identified as Walt Whitman along the way) describes a journey of perception, of finding connections to nature and everything else in his world. No detail is too small to be vital, in this poem (or any other by him); this is the point of the title of the famed book of poems to which he would add from 1855 until his death in 1892: Leaves of Grass. And as he famously declared in “Song of Myself”, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” 5

Given this notion of Whitman’s odyssey as a useful precedent for Robbins’, it is intriguing to note that Whitman was enthralled with the writings of the explorer, naturalist and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, when he wrote the first version of Leaves of Grass. In turn, reading Andrea Wulf’s excellent biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, had a large impact on Robbins in the making of this series of paintings. And as Wulf points out in her biography of Humboldt, Whitman kept a copy of the scientist’s celebrated book, Cosmos, on his desk, which prompted this famous characterization of himself from the original 1855 version of “Song of Myself”: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” 6 The poet catalogs the dimensions of his world and so, too, does Robbins in her paintings. She populates her paintings with things that matter to her and suggests, in the way she presents them, that we draw our own connections with them.

The reverence for nature and what it teaches the receptive eye and mind is central to her art. This reverence is palpable in Yugen Series #5: Global Heart, in which a tree sits at the center of the composition, a heart nestled in its roots. It is surrounded by a profusion of forms, flora and fauna, as well as traditional icons from Native American, Indonesian and other indigenous cultures. In the sixth painting in the series, A Calling, she paints the forms she saw while deep sea diving off the coast of Indonesia. Experiencing these creatures, exotic to her eyes, was a spiritual moment. “Even memory of these singular moments of stillness and silence,” she wrote, “being me home to my higher self.” 7

Humboldt resonated for Robbins because of his reverence for and insights into nature. He was a visionary scientist. So, too, was the artist cum scientist Ernest Haeckel. His remarkable drawings appeared in the book, Art Forms in Nature (1904). In it, the arrangement of images on a page – different views of a species – cohere as beautifully resolved works of art. As the late Olaf Briedbach, a biologist, historian of science and philosopher, observed of Haeckel’s approach, “Knowledge of nature is ‘natural aesthetics.’ Accordingly, aesthetics is nothing more than reflections of nature itself. Nature, which develops out of and into itself, is ‘beautiful.’” 8

This intimate relationship between the beauty of nature and of art is made manifest in Robbin’s art too. Drawing and painting from nature is itself a way of acquiring knowledge, of enlightening one’s self. This is one of the things that Robbins’ Yugen series conveys so strongly. It represents and communicates knowledge and revelations that cannot be conveyed by words. Its insights are embedded in the individual forms and the constellations of images she renders. They appeal directly to your psyche; no words are necessary.

Still, as I already mentioned, words sometimes enter these pictures. Is that paradoxical? Perhaps. I think the deeper reason for them to be there is as form of dialogue with the images themselves or a gloss on them. If these paintings are meditations on our potential bonds with each other and the rest of nature, then per aspera ad astra, as a guiding aphorism, suggests that a genuine grasp of how to live in greater harmony with nature is an arduous process. In another case, language is more personal: the word “Cecil” in the seventh painting in the series, Infinity. Including it is a form of remembrance for Robbins. It was her father’s name and it is also, as she reminds us in her comments on the painting, the name of the lion that the dentist, Walter J. Palmer, from Minnesota killed for sport and which became a worldwide symbol of the wanton killing of endangered species, to advocates of animal rights. 9 But the power of the painting doesn’t hinge on this knowledge, but the grace of its forms. The most haunting images in Infinity are the eyes that meet our gaze. Wordlessly, they convey how the rest of the natural world bears witness to what we do, whether we treat the world well or poorly. Robbins’ paintings please our eyes and haunt our psyches at the same time, making a case for how we can see, chart our sojourn in the world more clearly and do so without losing a sense of joy, despite some very real existential threats to our species and the world as a whole.

End Notes:

  1. Becky Robbins in discussion with the author, December 2017.
  2. Becky Robbins, “Becky Robbins Art,” Becky Robbins. Accessed January 2, 2018. http://beckyrobbins.com
  3. Becky Robbins, “Becky Robbins Art,” Becky Robbins. Accessed January 2, 2018. http://beckyrobbins.com
  4. Graeme Stevenson, “Becky Robbins Takes You Inside in Her Mind/The Colour in Your Life.” Television Series, Season 12. https://www.colourinyourlife.com.au/tv-show-ep/becky-robbins/
  5. Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: His Original Edition. Edited with an introduction by Malcom Cowley (New York: The Viking Press, 1961), 55.
  6. Whitman, 48. Also see Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 248, for a concise commentary on Whitman’s enthusiasm for Humboldt’s thought and writings.
  7. Becky Robbins, “Becky Robbins Art,” Becky Robbins. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://beckyrobbins.com
  8. Olaf Breidbach, “Brief Instructions to Viewing Haeckel’s Pictures,” in Ernest Haeckel, Art Forms in Nature, ed. Michael Ashdown (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2004), 13-14.
  9. Becky Robbins, “Becky Robbins Art,” Becky Robbins. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://beckyrobbins.com

 

Robert L. Pincus PhD has been an art critic, historian and educator for four decades. He is author of a seminal book on the major American artists Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz and contributed essays to numerous exhibition catalogs and books. He has also published reviews and articles in most major art magazines and newspapers. ©