Robinson’s solo exhibition Forerunners will be on view April 16 through May 29, with a reception Thursday, May 28 from 5-8pm. While the artist has a broad practice that includes ready-mades and ocular works, this exhibition will focus on his paintings on shaped plywood panels.
Forerunners, 2017 depicts two horses with black jockeys astride. While there are not many African American jockeys now, they dominated the early days of Thoroughbred racing in America, winning 15 out of the first 28 Kentucky Derby races. They were forced out of the profession by threats and intimidation in the early 20th century. This work calls this history to attention, the title emphasizing that not only are these two riders literally ‘forerunners’ in a race, but also forgotten trailblazers of the sport itself.
Robinson finds inspiration in sports as a means to explore the body in movement, here carved in wood, as well as to highlight accomplishments of African Americans. Sports is an underpinning theme in a number of works presented in Forerunners, as it is both vehicle of social mobility and microcosm of greater social issues. All of the works in this show display figures engaged in athletic, bodily struggle, often engaged in head to head competition. Bodies collide and connect with one another, striving towards their goal, towards a finish line and victory. In Rundown #2 (2016) the figures of track runners are executed in a substantial way, one figure looks as though he has cut off the other forcefully, and the second figure reels back in defeat and exhaustion.
Robinson’s work clearly draws from the African American experience. Playoff is Robinson’s reinterpretation of Titian’s late painting The Flaying of Marsyas, a scene in which the titular satyr Marsyas is brutally punished for losing his brazen challenge of the god Apollo to a musical contest. Robinson reimagines Marsyas as a jazz bassist, who has challenged another musician to a contest (vernacularly known amongst jazz musicians as “cutting heads”) and faces a similar fate to the mythical satyr. The surface of the painting is scraped and carved away in areas, reiterating the depicted aggressiveness of the scene through a literal aggressive working of the surface.
Robinson’s medium for all of the wall hung sculptural works is plywood that has been cut away, in a process that he refers to as “shaping plywood”. The resulting shaped plywood pieces are then polychromed with oil paint. The majority of the works act as cutouts, showing the entire figures. Two works included here are executed in a more delineated approach- like a line drawing released by saw from a plywood panel. Robinson sees his project as the formal challenge of taking a ubiquitous and inert construction material and transforming it into supple, rhythmic imagery.
Bruce Robinson is Professor Emeritus at the Columbus College of Art & Design, where he mentored generations of young artists until his retirement in 2010. He has a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA from Indiana University. Robinson is the recipient of an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, and has exhibited his work nationally and internationally. His work was recently featured in the exhibition Ohio Diaspora at the Riffe Gallery.