Project Space: Robert Amesbury
by Lyra Kilston
In a recent article, the contemporary art market was declared to be a bubble economy unparalleled since the days of 17th century Holland, when a single tulip bulb sold for three times the cost of a townhouse. Two years ago, Brooklyn-based artist Robert Amesbury also recognized the uncanny parallels between the Dutch empire and our own in a series of paintings titled Pronk. These richly colored gouache-on-paper paintings update typical Dutch and Flemish scenes, such as still lifes and flower arrangements, to reflect on American habits of extreme desire and consumption. One painting, Big Fish Devour Little Fish (2006), based on Pieter Bruegel’s engraving of the same title, depicts a large fish choking out a lobster claw, a strand of pearls, a Budweiser can and a plaid Burberry purse. Spilling out of a slit in the fish’s side are a bunch of glassy grapes, a can of beans, and a carton of glistening McDonald’s French fries. A pink and white tulip arcs into the water. While researching the period, Amesbury came across the word “pronk”—a Dutch term meaning to show off, or dress ostentatiously. His paintings reflect the opulence of the time not only in content, but also in their detailed rendering of luminescent pearls, opulent threads of blue smoke and even a glossy pink-glazed donut glowing in a ray of morning sunlight, a la Vermeer.
Amesbury, 32, has been painting for the past decade. While his style has evolved from broad strokes to his current tiny-brushed exactitude, his use of bright colors has been consistent, an affinity he credits to having grown up on the small, tropical island of Guam. As he explains, his move from Guam to Boston for college and then to New York about six years ago was jarring, noting the latter city’s barrage of advertising imagery. This kicked off a series of pop paintings crowded with products and logos, where Hello Kitty, Frosted Flakes, and Clorox bleach mingled in a candy-colored riot. Amesbury culls his imagery from several sources—online images, art history books, product labels, photographs he takes in neighborhood gardens—and arranges his compositions digitally. This accounts for the precision and flatness of his work, as well as the occasional swathes of topographical depth. He isn’t pursuing a digital look per se, but sees painting as a medium that can unabashedly absorb many sources.
Stacked in teetering piles on the wood floor of Amesbury’s studio are an unusual assortment of books, spanning Disney animation, Maria Sybilla Merian, Durer, Beowulf, mathematics and Japanese ghost stories. “I go to the library a lot,” he laughs. His current series of paintings have left commercialism behind and are honing in on two other periods of art history—17th century botanical drawings and 19th century British fairy paintings. In one corner, a 6-foot tall painting in-progress depicts a shellacked sky blue chrysalis, a lavender tangle of tree branches and the shiny gold and black swirls of a snail’s shell. In two paintings leaning against the walls, a beetle’s green metallic chitin and the half-opened petals of an Echinacea flower are ensconced in a tableau of flora impossible in its perfection. This series reflects an idealized nature that conjures museum display cases or the crisp landscapes seen in animated films like Princess Mononoke. Despite their impressive detail, there is an intentional artificiality and conversations with the artist can tend to parse what, in art history, can be considered natural or unnatural depictions of nature. He mentions a couple lines from Wallace Stevens “In order to see the actual world / it helps to visualize a fantastic one”—a fitting explanation for his work.
Lyra Kilston is a writer living in New York. She is an editor at Modern Painters.