Project Space: Riley Robinson

by Katie Anania

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      San Antonio-based artist Riley Robinson spent the majority of his recent residency in Norway walking and riding his bicycle through town plotting out artwork in his head. The execution of Robinson’s work takes place largely in its planning; its material deployment is a result not of fabrication but of thinking through an object and its effects before he sets up the work in space. Reading Robert Smithson embodies this practice: Robinson’s eyes scan a page of Robert Smithson’s writing for 49 seconds; we see Robinson’s eyes move but do not see the text. Since reading is normally a private and preparatory act for artists, the piece serves the viewer with the peculiarly anterior image of an artist studying something without re-encoding it into other visual material. There’s nothing cryptographic about Robinson’s influences here. To produce this work, we know he was Reading Robert Smithson. Like an unpainted canvas, no extra information clouds the (excuse the pun) reading of the act of reading.

      The private and performative dimensions of Reading Robert Smithson are not lost on Robinson, who has a history of producing works whose central components, either narratively or visually, are his own eyes. Who are you looking at? (2006) featured a 4 x 6 inch flat-screen monitor installed at eye level on a couch in Austin’s testsite gallery space. Robinson designed a computer program that would allow an image of his eyes to follow the viewer around the room as they looked at art (not Robinson’s) already installed in the space. Almost an inversion of Reading Robert Smithson, the 2006 work bestowed a quality of being-viewed-ness on both the included artwork and the viewer, fracturing a viewing experience that, since the Enlightenment, we have assumed to be private, unilateral and contemplative. In an even earlier project at San Antonio’s McNay Museum, Robinson’s description of one of his pieces announced that he had recorded his own face reading biographies of artists featured in the museum. Both language and the act of looking, in all three of these cases, become Robinson’s materials. Through these materials Robinson deploys an atemporal observation—observation both in the sense of looking (to observe a flower) and acting (to observe a holiday)—of something at once public and private.

      The use of language as material and occasion for execution exemplifies the Conceptualist paradigm in art history. One recalls artists like Lawrence Weiner and Adrian Piper, who used the simultaneous mutability and straightforwardness of “pure” information to dismantle the notion of art as a circumscribed material experience. Reading Robert Smithson responds to Weiner’s proposition that the work of art is determined by the condition of receivership; Robinson here records the condition of receivership. It’s as though we’ve grown so naturalized to Weiner’s idea of specific reactions to general propositions that Robinson can edit his work down to that very experience and nothing more. He records viewers’ unique experiences, whether his own as he reads Robert Smithson or yours as you look at art on the walls of a gallery.

      In this way, Robinson’s video work takes some familiar Conceptualist idioms and places them within a more contemporaneous framework of looking. And while Robinson may be part of the 60s genealogy in the sense that language is a generative point for larger comments on materials and personal exchange, Reading Robert Smithson inverts the public and the private in a way that prompts a deeper historical consideration of surveillance and selfhood.

      The components of Robinson’s larger body of work run the gamut from ready-made objects to transformed quotidian matter such as bronzed overalls. Like the jokey reticence of his other works, Reading Robert Smithson has wicked, self-referential subtext. Robinson admits to being curious about the current generation of artists’ almost universal devotion to Smithson and says that that he himself is “always in a hurry… the piece was sort of a commentary on the way I look at things. Smithson’s writing is dense, and I had to stop and re-read that particular passage several times.” The planning stages of his work, then, sometimes merit not just recounting – as Robinson did for me about his trip to Norway – but display as well. As a brief, isolated act of readership, Reading Robert Smithson merges process, idea and material into 48 seconds of blank communication.

      Katie Anania is a curatorial researcher at Fluent~Collaborative and an assistant editor at ...might be good.

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