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Before and After: Littlewood asks Robbins pt. 2

The conversation continues from Before and After: Robbins asks Littlewood pt. 1

Jess Littlewood : I am very drawn to in the kind of imagery you are creating in your current work, and its monolithic nature. Do you work from imagery or are they pure invention?

Colette Robbins : In my recent body of work “Archaeological Fiction” I do a lot of research and preparation on my sketches and collages before I create the final graphite paintings. The larger works take me upwards of one month and a half to complete, so I make sure I am devoted to the image I am going to work with. In a similar way to your process, I collage many different photographic references and then manipulate them in Photoshop. Afterwards, I work from that collage and about five other source photographs at a time while creating the graphite paintings. I also have texture references in my studio to refer to while making the work. For example I have rocks, mini head sculptures, and terrariums full of dirt and plants to draw ideas from while working. I have been to many of the places that are used for the preparatory collages and I use people I know as the models for the double headed monoliths.  Many elements of the work are planned and used from various source materials, but there is an element of invention when I am creating the textures in all of the work.

Jess Littlewood : I am also continually drawn to ideas of apocalypse and a world without humans, which is interesting in relation to your work. Humans never appear within my work yet the human form is extremely important in your visual language. The figures that you present appear to be monuments to another time, yet are immediately recognizable as human forms are you referencing civilizations of the past or are they future monuments yet to be constructed? They prompt me to think of the Easter Island heads.

Colette Robbins. The Sentinel 2012, Graphite paintings, 60 x 40 inches

Colette Robbins: The double headed figures in the works, do reference the Easter Island Heads, in addition to the  Olmec Colossal heads from Mexico, the multi-headed deities from the Angkor Wat region of Cambodia, and from the Roman mythological god Janus. Janus has a particular influence on this series because he has two faces so that he can face the past and present, human kind and the gods, chaos and civilization simultaneously. I see my double headed structures as not occupying one specific time, but referencing a fictional past, present, future, or some sort of parallel world all at once. I am more drawn to ideas of what symbols of our experience of relationships we leave behind than a specificity of time. How we deal with discovering and understanding those relics and monuments from an unknown time also drives the work.

The texture of the volcanic basalt that the Olmec used for their Colossal Heads has been a big influence on how and why I create such elaborate textures. There is a particular porous texture which looks like it could be the texture of a crater from another planet or that it could be very weather worn from years of outdoor exposure. I also found it interesting that the Olmec buried many of their Colossal Heads for unknown reasons.

Olmec head, Veracruz, circa 1942

Even though the models for the heads themselves are all people I know, I see them more as monuments to a fictitious relationship as opposed to a representation of my personal relationships. Although, no matter what I do, some aspect of the idiosyncratic natures of my relationships sometimes slips into the way I structure or pair the heads or how I bury them. I am fascinated by how the relationships between two individuals can shape history just as much or more as the efforts of one leader. I want my works to represent those epic relationships and the idea that a culture or cultures had the desire to depict them in such a specific way.

Jess Littlewood : I really like the inquisitive nature to the work, and how this rubs off on you as the viewer. I like your description of your work representing ‘epic relationships’ I try to take a stance that art is a tool to look at the really big things that maybe do not get discussed or thought about enough, and I have a tendency to want to create something fantastical and epic rather than focusing on the minutiae of life.

Looking at the different faces in the works on your website I am just wondering if your choice of person affects the way you portray them?

Colette Robbins: If my choice of person affects the way I render them, then I have done that unconcsciously. For example, I had an incident, when creating a preparatory collage, where I was using my father’s profile and somehow the shape of the monolith kept ending up looking like a penis, no matter how I re-structured it. I knew that if I kept it as that penis shape then the interpretation of the work would be limited, which is not what my aim was.  I decided to keep working with it until it’s form did not read as phallic. Many of them still look a little phallic, but what can you do? Sometimes penis and vagina references just need to slip on into a project.

On a subconscious level, I do believe that I bury or reveal specific parts of the people who I use because of my relationship with them. What I find interesting is that there are certain people whose face structures do not seem to make sense with in the frame work of this project. No matter how many times I try to collage them in for a composition, I cannot use them. I find this strange, and I try to fight it, but I end up letting my intuition lead me to make the compositional choices as much as possible, because after all is said and done, I like the results better.

Colette Robbins The Sentry 2011 graphite painting

JL : I am also interested that the buried heads have a certain look about them, they appear as or similar to roman heads that one would see in a museum, is this decision to keep the figures being associated with the here and now? or to give an impression of something that is from the past? I realize I am focusing a lot on the use of figures in your work, but I am particularly interested as I am so reluctant to use a figure in my own practice.

CR : I understand your reluctance to use a figure/portrait, since using one or many can instantly make a work of art start to discuss a specific narrative.  It is one of my challenges to use the figure without having a specific narrative dialogue by trying to keep the work open to varying interpretations. At the same, time I do not want my work to have a watered down meaning. I do want to discuss specific ideas.

The choices for the hair textures and in general for the buried heads have been influenced by Greek, Roman, and Egyptian head sculptures which you would see in a Museum. I did want those heads to be referencing antiquities. I like how those specific types of antiquities bring about a certain mystery and awe, simply because of their age and the mythology surrounding them.  Even though they specifically reference the past cultures we are familiar with, I want the viewer to feel that they are in the present discovering these relics for the first time.

Colette Robbins The Spotlight graphite paintings

JL : The other thing that really interests me about your work is that you create a collage first. I would be really interested to see one of these. (if that is not too invasive, no worries if that a bit like me asking to poke about in your underwear drawer)

CR : Ha! I am not shy about sharing some of my collages with you. Mine are not as perfected as yours are. At this point, I see them more as the skeletal structures for my drawings or as a sketch.  However, I did recently use a digital collage for a screen print collaboration and it is the first time I felt comfortable doing this, because in the past when I show the collages, I would always get the reaction of “Why don’t you just show these collages?” which bothered me because I was not ready and because they were not technically strong enough for me, nor did I think they were relevant. However, I am always changing what I think is relevant as my projects grown and change, so you might see more digital collages entering into my final works. I recently created my first maker Bot 3-D print of a Cambodian female head merged with a European male head that was 3-D scan of two sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sculpture is something I would like to work with in the future too.

Colette Robbins. The Lookout, limited edition screen print.

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