Interview with M. M. Robinson: New Media, New Direction

I first wrote about M. M. Robinson for UR Chicago Magazine (April 12 – May 19, 2007) in an article entitled (theirs, not mine) Technicolor Fantasy, M. M. Robinson's Creations Take Imagination to a New Level. In it, I describe Robinson's multimedia installation Synthesizer as re-defining “techno art in Chicago with graphic design intermixed with personal-reality symbolism.” As a follow-up, I asked him about Synthesizer and his new direction in art as the new director for NAB Gallery, one of the oldest artist-owned galleries in Chicago.

MM Robinson Chimera IV
Chimera IV. Inkjet on Vinyl. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Your art could be described as graphic design meets new media. How would you describe it?

M.M. Robinson (MMR): I think graphic design is a fine way to describe its appearance. It conveys a formal sophistication and fluency in forms of cultural production that are hallmarks of my work. Conceptually, however, I feel the work has more in common with contemporary art than design.

While design is about something (usually a product ), art tends to have a meta quality — the critical, self-reflexive “about” — in that its meaning is one of the conditions of its existence. To my mind, it’s actually rather hard to hang something in a gallery that doesn’t have this meta quality without it looking terribly antiquated. In this line of thought, design is really very similar to pre-modern art.

MM Robinson Synthesizer (Installation View)
Synthesizer (installation view). Inkjet on paper with 30 min. color video.
Courtesy of the artist.
MM Robinson Synthesizer Detail2
Synthesizer (detail). Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Could you provide more details about your installation Synthesizer?

MMR: With Synthesizer I wanted to make something massive and dense and non-hierarchical, something like an unorganized library of images that would convey the feeling of being immersed in data. That was the intention behind making the composition into a band that would span the entire perimeter of the gallery, plus the idea of a loop without a beginning or end. I realized as I was working on it that it was becoming a kind of a de facto self-portrait because as hard as I tried to eliminate hierarchies, I couldn’t get around the selection process.

I thought about John Cage‘s experiments, but decided that chance methods aren’t attractive to me. Instead I decided to run with it. All of this stuff is ultimately my stuff, and the piece became an outward analogy of what it’s like to live with it. We carry it all around and select what we need to form a view of world and ourselves — the narrative self. There’s no symbolic organization (that I’m aware of), but it remains somewhat coherent because of the visual organization of elements.

There are themes, currents and repetitions, but also contradiction and asymmetry. There’s nothing like meaning to be had except the ones an individual may selectively pull from the piece, and I feel like it’s my job to make that as hard as possible. However many pieces one connects, there are always more that won’t fit.

MM Robinson Pension
Pension. Oil on plexiglass / acrylic on plywood. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What themes are you trying to convey in your art?

MMR: I’m interested in complexity and systems thinking, using art as a way to structure data. I think the abundance of data is one of the defining characteristics of our culture, and, like many artists, I’m interested in understanding what that means for people and for art. One thing I think it means is that we need to think differently about the symbolic function of images. Most of my recent work has dealt with this idea.

ArtStyle: How have your drawings, paintings, and new media evolved over the years?

MMR: I started as a painter making representational images, but very quickly felt compelled to do things to counter the illusion of depth and space by gouging, ripping, or burning the canvas, anything that would indicate that this was an object with a surface. I did some plaster casting and sculpture for a while around the time the internet was becoming popularized, building human/machine hybrids, another opposition. When I came back to painting I was still painting representational images, mostly nudes and obscuring them, but this time with graphical information — logo, text, diagrams. Eventually this led to dropping the figures all together to concentrate on the data. The paintings got intentionally flatter and flatter until I decided to paint on the reverse side of plexiglass, making the picture plane one uniform flat surface. I eventually began doing my work on the computer because I was spending a lot of time and effort trying to paint like a computer and because I wanted my compositions to be understood more as images than objects.

MM Robinson Superfund
Superfund. Oil on plexiglass / acrylic on plywood. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: As the new Director for NAB Gallery, what are your plans for the gallery?

MMR: In general, my goal is for NAB to become a proving ground where artists and curators can experiment with art and exhibition models. As an artist-run non-profit, we have the opportunity to create this kind of laboratory space. My introduction to NAB was through one such experiment, an exhibition titled T Here by artists J.B. Daniel and Ben Dallas, which was mounted simultaneously at NAB Gallery and Lobby Gallery, where I was director at the time. The exhibition was concerned with distance and space and the artists performed several interventions in both spaces to connect the spaces physically and conceptually. This demanded a considerable amount of cooperation between the galleries and created an interesting and unique exhibition that may not have been possible in more commercial spaces. Of course, not all of our shows will stray so dramatically from the traditional exhibition model, but it’s an example I like to refer to.

ArtStyle: What are your plans for your own art in the future?

MMR: I’m not sure, to be honest. At the moment I’m in an experimental phase that I always go through between bodies of work. The thing I’m most interested in now is the distinction between objects and images, and the way images move around like a kind of cultural currency. What manifestation that might take, I’m not sure.

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