A few months ago, I was delighted to be asked to participate in Art Habens Biennale Review. Below you’ll find an in-depth interview with about my artwork and a gallery of some images mentioned in the article.
AN interview by Dario Rutigliano, curator and Melissa C. Hilborn, curator. firstname.lastname@example.org
1) Hello Nadine and welcome to ART Habens. Before starting to elaborate about your works we would like to invite our readers to visit www.nadinerobbinsart.com in order to get a wide idea about your artistic production and we would start this interview with a couple of questions about your background: while largely self-taught as a painter, you have a solid formal training in Graphic Design and after having earned your BFA from the State University of New York at New Paltz, you launched your successful career, that you later closed to devote yourself full time to painting.
How does your previous career influence your evolution as an artist? In particular, how does your cultural substratum due to American culture direct the trajectory of your current artistic research?
Nadine Robbins: While shifting from a graphic design career to working as a full-time painter may seem like a significant change—certainly, it would have a generation or two ago, when there was a strict division between “commercial” and “fine” art—for me it was a natural, seamless evolution. My expertise in graphic design has been enormously helpful in my painting.
Planning a composition is similar to planning the layout of a printed design piece. Graphic design is about setting a visual tone and using elements of art (line, color, composition) to convey a concise and distinctive image. Good graphic design has an immediate impact on the viewer. I think my paintings have a similar impact: they have an immediacy about them and a sense of boldness.
I’m a very down to earth person, which I believe you can see in my work: I’m interested in the authenticity of my subjects. That practicality comes in part from running a successful design firm for many years. I value clear communication and honesty in all areas of my life and career, first as a business owner and now a painter.
My work is very much rooted in the American tradition of photorealism, which began in New York in the 1960s; Louis K. Meisel coined the term. I know that some art historians make a distinction between photorealism and hyperrealism, while others use the terms interchangeably. I tend to use “hyperrealism” more frequently, but ultimately, my concern is not the terminology. Instead, it’s the confluence in my work, and others’, between traditional technique and contemporary subjects. When photorealism first started, the focus was on the method, and the artists maintained almost documentary objectivity. Now, there’s room in hyperrealism for the artist’s voice to come through. That emotional undercurrent is the most compelling aspect of this genre, and it’s becoming increasingly important to me. Traditionally photorealism and hyperrealism have not had a socio-political tone, but my work is very much grounded in challenging social norms. In particular, my work has subverted the traditional ideas of the female nude and portraiture of women. My models are unapologetic, and in control, they’re emphatically not just the object of the male gaze. While a number of female artists I admire, such as Cindy Sherman, have also challenged the norms of portraiture, I feel my work is unique because I’ve done so within the realm of hyperrealist painting.
2) The body of works that we have selected for this special edition of ART Habens and that our readers have already got to know in the introductory pages of this article has at once impressed us for the way you provided your artworks with such a powerful narrative drive: Wuld you walk us through your usual setup and process?
Nadine Robbins: My paintings all begin with a photo shoot where I take a series of pictures of the model and then select one to use as a reference for the painting, to capture all the detail. The narrative drive in my work comes in part from the nature of the photoshoot. I don’t go in with a fixed idea of the outcome. Instead, I build a rapport with the model and let the shoot organically unfold as we work together. That sense of spontaneity keeps the work fresh rather than formal. I want the models to have agency about how they present themselves, and to be comfortable, so their authentic selves shine through.
One of my favorite anecdotes about a photoshoot provides an excellent example of that spontaneity. I had organized a shoot that was designed to be a parody of singer Robin Thicke’s infuriatingly misogynistic song and video “Blurred Lines.” I took many photos of that event, but the one I ended up using captures a moment when the model was sitting on a blue wingback chair, The Green File, filing her nails with a green nail file during a break. We were talking about how angry the video made us, and that moment perfectly encapsulated what she and I were feeling. I would never have expected to go in that a photo taken during a stolen moment like that would turn out to be my favorite one. So that spontaneity creates the underpinning of the narrative. I’m so fortunate as an artist to have an inherent ability to capture the decisive moment.
3) As you have remarked once, the composition of each portrait is achieved by finding that place between the humorous and poignant, a kind of intimacy that goes beyond your relationship with the model. At the same time, many of your subjects seem to reveal their inner lives in the portraits: what’s your philosophy on the nature of the portrait? How do you select the people that you decide to include in your artworks?
Nadine Robbins: My philosophy on the nature of the portrait is that it’s a kind of collaboration between the model and me. The images capture the model’s mood, emotions, and the way she presents herself; at the same time, I respond to the model with my spirit, emotions, and ideas about how to show her. All of those elements combine to create a complex interrelationship not only between the model and me but also between the painting and the viewer.
I select my models intuitively. They’re women with a particular type of beauty that captivates me; they are often not beautiful as that term has traditionally been defined, but they’re inherently photogenic. There’s something undefinable about each of them that I respond to and that is holistic: it’s as much about their sense of self as about their appearance. Often that comes through in the eyes. Sometimes the models are acquaintances; other times, I’ve approached complete strangers. Occasionally I paint people I know well. That process is always enjoyable because I have to put aside the nuances of our friendship and look at them with a fresh perspective.
Going back to the photoshoot, that rapport I build with the model allows us to move past small talk and to discuss more intimate topics while I photograph them. As I mentioned with The Green File, many of these conversations lead to the anger that many women feel about gender inequality, chauvinism, and, in many cases, instances of abuse and sexual violence. The Me Too movement is one example of how this anger is being acknowledged and channeled into advocacy, accountability, and ultimately change. My most recent painting Try and Stop Me is a visceral portrait of a model named Clementine, who I’ve used before. She has this stunning inner beauty. I have a few models, like her, who I’ve painted multiple times. I call them my muses. During the photoshoot where I took the photo for this painting, Clementine and I were talking about some of these issues, about being unheard as women. She told me a story of how she had wanted to start a business, but when she approached her father for a loan, he refused to give it to her. Instead, he was going to provide the funds to Clementine’s brother, who, in her father’s estimation, would be more successful at running a business. I asked her to keep that thought in her mind while I photographed her, and she did not disappoint. You can see the anger in her face, which I underscored with the vibrant red background.
4) New York City-based artist Lydia Dona once remarked that to make art today one has to reevaluate the conceptual language behind the mechanism of art-making: are your works created gesturally, instinctively? Or do you methodically transpose geometric schemes?
Nadine Robbins: By its nature hyperrealism is a systematic process of painting the outline from the photograph, blocking in color, and then applying paint in increasingly detailed layers. It’s time-consuming and precise. As I’ve described, the spontaneity that I strive for in the source photograph offsets the traditional rigidity of hyperrealism. The new body of work I’m painting, called Seeing Red, is less precise and more gestural than my earlier painting. I’ve loosened the process and freed up the brushstrokes from the strictures of hyperrealism. This evolution of my approach dovetails with my increased emphasis on the emotional undercurrent of my subjects. It’s as if the anger and frustration that has been simmering under the surface of my work for a long time have broken through; my more gestural approach captures that energy and makes it palpable for the viewer. I still consider myself a hyperrealist, but I’ve increasingly put more weight on the content, adjusting the technique as needed to convey that narrative best. I feel my work, and that of other artists I’ve shown with, to be pushing the boundaries of hyperrealism and going beyond how it’s been defined.
5) Engaging the viewers to question such a variety of issues that affect our unstable contemporary age, as the theme of identity, race, beauty, and gender, your artistic research reveals such subtle still effective socio-political commitment. Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco once remarked that "artist's role differs depending on which part of the world they’re in. It depends on the political system they are living under": how do you consider the role of artists in our globalized and media-driven contemporary age? And how do you think your works respond to it in finding hidden, crystallized moments in the everyday?
Nadine Robbins: I agree with Orozco’s statement completely; it’s inevitable that an artist will respond to the political, social, and cultural climate they’re living in. In my work, I’m driven by the women’s revolution that’s happening, and it's been gaining momentum since Trump came into office. These issues affect me personally and politically, and as an artist, I feel compelled to shine a light on them. It’s a difficult and frustrating time to live in America. People live in their bubbles, follow the media that confirms their beliefs, and shut themselves off from other points of view. We’ve had to become used to sifting through endless misinformation to find the truth. A recent opinion piece by Jessica Noll in the New York Times (“Smash the Wellness Industry”) called out the enormous industry that is supposedly focused on well being for actually promoting weight loss. She talks about intuitive eating as an antidote to the focus on “wellness” that keeps women feeling guilty and inadequate. One huge benefit of social media is that grassroots movements like intuitive eating can have a voice in the media, even if they don’t have the money and the platform that the wellness industry has.
Noll’s piece called to mind my painting Runnin’ on Dunkin’, which, as you say, crystallized a moment of the every day while also making a broader socio-political statement. This painting was part of a series that explored bad habits and guilty pleasures. The subject of the painting is a model and burlesque dancer living in New York, and her guilty pleasure is fresh hot, glazed donuts. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts on the ground floor of her apartment building, so she’s faced with this dilemma every day: does she avoid the donuts because, like a professional dancer, there are certain expectations about her weight and appearance, or does she indulge in what brings her pleasure? I brought donuts to our shoot, and the painting captures the moment where she fully owned her decision to eat one—she looks at the viewer with a raised eyebrow that almost dares us to challenge her decision. The painting is about her as an individual, but also about the pressures that she, I, and all women feel around appearances and expectations. She’s saying, “I don’t care; I’m eating the donut.” Women see this painting and immediately understand what it’s about because all of us have those same internal conversations.
State of Mind is my first self-portrait, and it turned out to be the start of the Seeing Red series that I’m currently working on. For me, this self-portrait epitomizes the notion that all politics are personal. I painted this during a period of depression I experienced after Trump was elected: I felt (and feel) utter despair about what his administration would mean for women, for LGBTQ communities, for immigrants, and so many other marginalized people. At the same time, I had some health issues and was thinking a lot about aging, and what it means for my career to be an “older” woman artist. My prior work had a sense of defiance inherent in the women I painted, but State of Mind is what I consider a breakthrough piece—where that defiance became full-blown rage. Women’s anger has been seen as threatening and unbecoming. It’s perceived as a liability for women but as part of men’s power. In this painting, I’m channeling my feelings about politics, about societal expectations, and about how those things affect me as an individual.
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.
10) Over the years you have exhibited in a number of occasions, including your recent participation to WMOCA - International Biennial Portrait Competition : we would catch this occasion to ask you something about your relationship with your spectatorship. Direct relationship with the audience in a physical is definitely the most important one, in order to snatch the spirit of a work of art. However, as the move of Art from traditional gallery spaces, to the street and especially to the online realm increases: how do you consider the role of emerging online technosphere — and platforms like Instagram — in creating new links between artists and worldwide audience?
Nadine Robbins: As an artist, it’s enormously gratifying to be able to share my work online and to directly and immediately reach audiences, collectors, and curators around the world (which, incidentally, is how I was selected for an exhibition at the MEAM (Museum of Modern Art) in Barcelona for International Women’s Day). Online tools and social media platforms make communication and connection easier than ever, and they enable me to share my work with more people than I ever could without them. These tools are also instrumental in advancing socio-political movements globally, as we’ve seen with the Women’s March, for example.
This virtual connection is clearly not a substitute for personal relationships, though. I love to connect with people through Instagram and other media, but I hope those connections eventually lead to real-life interactions, like having a curator invite me to an exhibition or a collector purchase a painting. While images convey a lot of information, they still can never replicate the tactile quality of seeing a painting in person.
Similarly, technology and social media can help me identify and communicate with models, but there’s no way those tools could ever replace the personal dynamic that happens during a photo shoot, when we’re both physically present in the same room.
One frustration I have with technology is that the algorithms that control the content on social media are not sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a painting of a nude and an image that actually violates their policies. I’ve had my work censored on Facebook because it depicts nude women. While it’s not surprising, it’s infuriating, and just another example of society telling us what’s appropriate and not appropriate when it comes to women’s bodies. I’ve tried to appeal, but it’s hopeless, so now I post my paintings on my blog where I don’t have to blur them out or be subject to someone else’s notion of what’s acceptable.
11) We have really appreciated the originality of your artistic research, and before leaving this stimulating conversation, we would like to thank you for chatting with us and for sharing your thoughts, Nadine. What projects are you currently working on, and what are some of the ideas that you hope to explore in the future?
Nadine Robbins: My current body of work is a series called Seeing Red, which includes the latest painting of Clementine Try and Stop Me I mentioned as well as my self-portrait State of Mind. This series takes many of the themes and ideas we’ve been talking about and explores them further. They’re large-scale portraits of women set on flat red backgrounds. The technique is almost pointillistic, and the emotional tenor is not just defiant, but furious and visceral. These paintings embody the dire need for women in America—and around the world—to speak our truth. In the age of Me Too, eroding abortion rights, a misogynistic president, and other so-called women’s issues (that affect everyone, regardless of gender identity), we can no longer be quiet.