6) We have been fascinated with the way your artworks unveil the point of convergence between the historic legacy of portraiture and contemporary sensitiveness, highlighting that exploring a past experience can enhance the understanding of the contemporary": how do you consider the relationship between Tradition and Contemporariness playing within your artistic process?
Nadine Robbins: When you study Western art history, you clearly see a cyclical pattern of tradition being challenged by contemporary ideas, which then become the norm, and then are later challenged by a new radical idea, and so on. Photorealism started as a response to—a rejection of—abstract expressionism and minimalism. The photorealists wanted to bring back virtuosic painting technique and were also responding to what many saw as the encroachment of photography into the world of “fine art.” Nearly all of the first generation of photorealists were white men, and I think there was a sense of hubris, that they were proving that they could make paintings that looked more like photographs than photographs themselves. They were appropriating photography and inserting it into their painting process. Painting from a photograph gives a painting more emotional weight because there’s a kind of layering that takes place as the energy of the photograph is transposed into the strength of the painting
Now, thankfully, there’s no longer a hierarchy in terms of art media, and there’s so much depth that new tools and media can bring to traditional techniques. Anyone with a smartphone has an incredibly powerful camera in their pocket that can create a picture that’s more advanced than what we can see with the naked eye. That doesn’t make painting obsolete, though; on the contrary, as a painter, I can use that same tool—a powerful digital camera—to make my paintings even more detailed and nuanced. I’m energized by being at this intersection of traditional and contemporary—I can take the aspects of the traditional techniques that work for me, and use them in conjunction with new technologies to amplify my message around contemporary issues.
7) Another interesting series of yours that have particularly impressed us and that we would like to introduce to our readers is entitled Oysters and we have been struck with the way you sapiently conveyed the idea of intimacy and tenderness using such a vivacious palette: how did you structure your tones in order to achieve such brilliant results, combining such apparently opposite ideas and visual qualities?
Nadine Robbins: Building on the discussion of the role of photography in photorealism and hyperrealism, I want to talk a bit more about how I use photography. In a photoshoot I take dozens of images, yet I select only one that will become the basis for the painting. In addition to choosing the most arresting one, I’m also choosing based on the visual characteristics of the photo—the light, composition, color, and so forth. Then I can further adjust these in Photoshop until I achieve the perfect image. I think there’s a misconception with hyperrealism that the photo dictates the painting, but in reality, I have a lot of leeway in how I use the picture. This is one area where I call upon my graphic design background quite a bit.
In the oyster paintings, I’m investigating exactly the opposite ideas and visual qualities you mention. In essence, I’m challenging whether they are, in fact, opposites, or whether they can rightfully coexist. In nature, an oyster has a hard, chalky shell, and a soft, viscous interior. The qualities are the opposite, yet they are inextricably linked, two parts of a whole. We tend to ascribe attributes to these qualities, seeing the shell as robust or “masculine” and the inside as fluid or “feminine.” I’m making the statement that the oyster—or, by extrapolation, anyone who identifies as female—can be both hard and soft, solid and translucent, understated and bold, and so forth.
In the oyster paintings, I use light and reflection to underscore and draw attention to the shapes and the textures. You’ll notice the facets of ice cubes catching the light, a spoon reflecting the room around it, and drops of water with a mirror-like shine.
8) As you have remarked once, Oysters also expresses a certain robust appreciation of the tactile, the feminine and as such your identity as a woman: as one the pioneers of feminist art, Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, your artworks not fall prey to the emotional prettification of a beloved subject and we dare say that your artistic research seems to be a tribute to the theme of women's identity, decontextualizing it from the unavoidable cultural influence of our patriarchal and male-oriented societies. Do you think that your being a woman provides your artistic research with some unique value? Moreover, do you think that your artistic research responds to a particular cultural moment?
Nadine Robbins: Absolutely. Traditionally, since the time of Gentileschi at least, there’s been an assumption that women have a particular appreciation for beauty, and therefore paint things that are generally accepted as beautiful. I do think that my work is a tribute to women’s identity; one of the ways I express that, as I touched on earlier, is by choosing models who are beautiful to me—not by standards set by society or cultural norms. My work captures the complexity of women. I’m showing that we can be angry and sensual that we can be defiant and experience pleasure. Understanding and celebrating this complexity is crucial for society as a whole, in ways that are both small and monumental—whether it’s being able to eat a donut without regret or the media talking about a female political candidate’s platform instead of her clothing.
9) Your sapient brushstrokes impart such a tactile feature to your artworks, providing them with stimulating allegorical quality. Austrian Art historian Ernst Gombrich once remarked the importance of providing a space for the viewers to project onto, so that they can actively participate in the creation of the illusion: how important are metaphors in your practice?
Nadine Robbins: I see the viewer as the third participant in a sort of conversation that takes place between me, the model, and the person looking at the work. For art to have an impact, that conversation must include the viewer; otherwise, the work can’t communicate its message in a way that can be heard. The viewer needs to find a point of relevance in the work.
As you’re suggesting, one way I provide an entry point for the viewer is through metaphor, though it’s always a metaphor that can be interpreted in many ways. I have no control over how a viewer “reads” a painting once it’s out in the world, and that’s okay; in fact, it’s preferable that the metaphor is personal, so it resonates.
The multiplicity of meanings is interesting to me as an artist, and when I’m in the role of the viewer myself. It’s so powerful to see and hear different interpretations. My painting I Will Survive shows the artist Gin Stone with a rope around her wrists and neck. This is a direct reference to the medium she works in, which is a retired fishing line. One viewer saw this painting and wrote a fantastic email to the museum where it was on view. She talked about how, as a survivor of abuse, this painting symbolized to her the ability to break out of physical and emotional bonds; the painting helped this woman shift from seeing herself as a victim to seeing herself as a survivor who triumphed over her situation. While I knew the image was powerful and showed the model’s confidence, I could never have predicted this individual viewer’s response. That’s an ideal example of this three-party conversation between the model, the painter, and the viewer.