Chris Lanier: Elapsed in Time Essay

The Capital City Arts Initiative [CCAI] is honored to present Elapsed in Time, an exhibition by artist Jenny Robinson at the CCAI Courthouse Gallery, February 9 – May 18, 2012. In conjunction with the project, media artist and writer Chris Lanier has written the following exhibition essay. CCAI extends its appreciations to Jenny, Chris, guest curator Galen Brown, the Carson City Courthouse, and all those involved in the exhibition.

A Sense of Majesty

The exhibition Elapsed in Time, featuring work by printmaker Jenny Robinson, has a genuine sense of majesty. The prints she has on display are large, most of them over 30 by 50 inches – much larger than the usual print. They command the space they are displayed in, showing off a real technical brio. For Robinson, the scale is mostly a matter of format meeting subject matter. The prints at the CCAI Courthouse Gallery display big, mostly neglected structures: Gasometers, highway underpasses, abandoned rollercoaster tracks, water towers. The structures are massive, but they are also, in the context of their environments, generally unnoticed – hidden either by design or by obsolescence. Robinson’s prints reveal how these giant structures appear after they have stopped being looked after, and stopped being looked at (of course, Robinson herself is still looking).

Robinson works up her prints from sketches that she makes on site, aided by some photo references. Her studio is in the Hunter’s Point Shipyard, an industrial section of San Francisco – a perfect theater for her interest in abandoned architecture. It is a zone of constant dereliction and renewal – buildings that have been empty hulls for years can suddenly vanish, seemingly overnight. Robinson seems drawn to this sort of quixotic moment in a building’s life (a “moment” that can span a decade or more): when a structure that so forcefully asserts its permanence gives evidence of its actual impermanence.

The artist that immediately came to my mind, looking at her prints, was Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), the American photographer and painter (Robinson only became aware of his work a few years ago). Sheeler was fascinated by the formal elements of American industry, photographing Ford’s River Rouge Plant outside Detroit, or making paintings of power stations, under commission by Fortune Magazine. He loved the geometry of the factory, of the machine – recognizing that utilitarian forms can have a great beauty.

Of course, Sheeler’s paintings and photos are invested with a sense of industrial optimism, even utopianism. Several decades later, that utopian dream has shaded into something of a hangover. If Robinson’s prints do not offer a direct rebuke to Sheller’s industrial images, they certainly offer a skeptical aside, or an interesting tonal counterpoint. Both artists give their subjects a frank monumentality, but where the geometry of Sheeler’s buildings seems clear and clean, Robinson’s prints are soaked in an atmosphere of corrosion. Rust colors, streaks and speckled textures not only describe the surfaces of the structures, they extend into and infect the empty air around them. The space surrounding the buildings is often clotted, heavy with dark ink. While the structures remain standing, their edges fend off the weight of that ink, staving off a final collapse into black obscurity. The prints seem like they have been etched on the sides of flattened oil drums, the stains of their toxic contents bleeding through.

Though the texture of the prints almost revels in toxicity, Robinson has cultivated a non-toxic printing process. There is a degree of self-preservation to adopting non-toxic methods: “In England, when I went to college, I’m sure it knocked ten years off my life. We never had any ventilation, we were breathing up the acids as we made our plates.” When she moved to California, about a decade ago, there was more “green” consciousness about such processes, which pointed her toward new techniques.

Printing at her current scale would ordinarily involve etching a large copper plate with acid. Rather than dealing with the expense and ponderousness of copper plates, Robinson’s “plates” are illustration board, sealed with varnish. She carves into the surface to make the lines for her images, in a dry point technique. The colors are built up as washes, in four or five passes of a monoprint process. Besides being less toxic than working with copper, this process is far quicker, and more immediate. She usually completes a plate in about a week, with the printing done in following weeks.

Her Brighton Pier East (2011) has a certain ghostliness. It depicts a Pleasure Pier in Brighton, England – with “all the icing cake design,” as Robinson put it – that was gutted by a fire about a decade ago. After that, storms stripped it down further. “It’s more beautiful now,” Robinson said. “It almost looks like a blueprint, the original drawing for the original building. Through decay and time and destruction, it looks like a drawing in the middle of the sea. It’s just gone back to its bare bones.” The image speaks to the allure of the dilapidated. That vacancy gives us license to inhabit it. Even if there is police-tape or a “No Trespassing” sign barring our way, we are somehow invited to let our eyes and imagination wander there.

It’s true that Robinson has more of an interest in the backside of signage, and the undercarriages of overpasses – but that doesn’t amount to a real exposé. She literally reveals the underbelly of industrial systems, particularly those linked to distribution and transportation, but her affect is more factual than muckraking. She’s not sneaking behind a public facade in order to point out some hypocrisy, pulling out the diminutive man behind the curtain – she’s more interested in structure, the sort of architectural engineering it takes to keep the facade aloft.

Her Grand Lake Theater (2009) shows the back of the Grand Lake Theater sign in Oakland, with the reversed letters scored vertically and horizontally with metal bars, an imploded crossword puzzle, carving up space into cramped little rectangles. You can see the same fascination with compartmentalized space under the swoop of the track in Rollercoaster (2008), the latticework of the support beams fragmenting into almost abstract patterns, a shrapnel of crosses and triangles arrested in the air.

Gasworks, London (2011) tiptoes toward dispensing with subject matter, while remaining entirely figurative – the print shows the skeletal metal scaffolding for a gas tank, though the tank itself is gone. It’s a giant birdcage whose bird has long flown. What remains is a description of vacant volume in a combination of circles and squares. The abandoned gasworks has taken up the role of the visual artist – its only function now is the framing and composition of space.

Her portraits of Gasometers (the one in the show, Gasometer, Blue (2009), is featured on the show card and at right) were quite liberating for her as an artist. “The turning point for me was when I started doing the Gasometers,” she said. Before them, “I traveled a lot, I was in India and I often would do these beautiful, and a bit romantic, watercolors… I sold everything I did, but to be honest I was almost embarrassed about it…

“I freed myself from that and decided just to do what interested me, like the Gasometers. I remember thinking, ‘Nobody is ever going to want to buy a Gasometer.’ But actually my work has really taken off since I did those prints, because it freed me of the feeling that I ought to be doing artwork that pleases people. I enjoy my work much more now because I do what I want, regardless of whether I think people will like it or not.”

Chris Lanier
Reno, Nevada
March 2012

top image: Tethered, 2012
center image: Brighton Pier East, 2011
bottom image: Gasometer, 2009