David Robilliard: A Modest Retrospective

© Paul Knight

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It’s a modest exhibition, this one.

The ICA is challengingly laid out, with its two main gallery spaces interrupted by a café and a set of stairs. This can sometimes lead to a curatorial hiccup, as an exhibition is broken in half down the middle. Not so this month; rather than opt for a broken monster, the ICA have gone for two more humble (in size, if not scope) offerings.

Downstairs is Tauba Auerbach’s first major solo show in the UK. It’s very interesting, but not our focus here. It’s the two rooms upstairs that we’re here for: the first major solo exhibition of the late artist and poet David Robilliard for over 20 years.

His work seems straightforward. Large canvases with ever-so-simple line drawings of faces, naïve almost to the point of crudeness (or perhaps the other way around) featuring a slogan, a few little words. It’s from one of these that the exhibition takes its name: The Yes No Quality of Dreams.

David Robilliard was, by the sound of things, quite a guy. An active member of the 80s London queer scene, close friend to legendary eccentrics (and artists) Gilbert & George (who called him “the new master of the modern person”) and a prolific poet, he moved to London from Guernsey in 1975.

Wandering around, his paintings are likely to call to mind the work of Turner nominee David Shrigley. They operate with a similar format – the juxtaposition of clunky image with enigmatic, whimsical and sometimes unnerving text.

At first glance they don’t, necessarily, seem that fresh. This image/text thing is a not-unfamiliar sight in galleries these days; there’s a kind of ubiquity to it, and sometimes it can be tricky to separate the works worth bothering with from those that by rights should never have made it off the wacky greetings card.

Robilliard’s paintings, however, are certainly worth it. For two reasons.

First: originality. The “he did it first” thing is a bit boring, but it’s helpful to bear in mind, here. It’s difficult, with works that mimic the format of a captioned cartoon, to come at them from anything other than the culturally entrenched rules of engagement; it makes sense that an image accompanied by words will relate, in some way, to these words. Often, the image illustrates the text, sometimes the text captions the image. Either way, the two rely on each other for the joke (or whatever) to work. Base contemporary examples extend from all sorts of editorial cartoons (although Robilliard’s are certainly more evocative of the deconstructive, almost aggressive format of Modern Toss than The Far Side), to the aforementioned Shrigley. The point being that it’s seldom difficult to extract a sense of the text/image connection. The two rely on each other for a punch-line. Coming at Robilliard’s paintings looking for a punch-line is not going to help; the greetings card is not an influence.

The second reason is that unlike many contemporary artists, whose work straddles disciplinary boundaries – poetry, music, theatre etc – with varying degrees of success, Robilliard was the real deal. His poetry exists in standalone anthologies, as a document of his life and of his interfaces with 80s society, cultures and subcultures. The lines in his paintings are taken from his poetry, reinvigorated, a new context supplied not by other words and phrases, but by pictures.

The exhibition really takes off when you begin to investigate the relationship of text to image. As established, the two have no conventional correlation. Rather, the best of his paintings on show feature a kind of disconnect in image and text. This is not a hard-and-fast rule of his work; pieces like A Roomful of Hungry Looks (1987) offer clearly related text/image content – in this case the text (which always doubles as the title) is accompanied by a cluster of portraits, a roomful of people shooting hungry looks willy-nilly. This is kind of an exception though. The other works are not so obviously illustrated (or captioned). Robilliard’s lines, recycled from his poetry, are recontextualised by the accompanying imagery. As poems they exist elsewhere, within their own bubbles of meaning or observation. Painted, alongside a consistent vocabulary of imagery, they take on new meanings, offering new insights into different emotional landscapes.

In his essay WE HAVE ONE CHANCE TO CELEBRATE LIFE, written for the catalogue of the show, Andrew Wilson describes how Robilliard’s images “exist in the same observational register as his poems”. Image and text complement one another without relying on each other as a mutual point of access to the same outcome. Too Many Cocks Spoil the Breath, for example, offers a crude statement, culled from his poem Thoughts For The Coming Week. Quoted in full in the same essay, the poem comprises of eight one-line vignettes, blue and disparate until the last couplet “Get off my back will you – / give someone else a chance.” The line, “Too many cocks…” goes a way to supporting the poem’s final statement, the impact of which comes, in part, from the fact that it’s the only part of the poem that isn’t a sexy pun or double entendre. The painting almost bypasses the need for the poem’s other lines, whilst supporting a similar sentiment; two men exchange a direct look through the text. The look seems to contradict the statement: it is frank and serious – “Get off my back will you”. As Andrew Wilson says, neither text nor image “illustrate[s] the other, but together the forms [convey] a unity of language.”

The ICA is hyping this exhibition up. It’s fair enough; Robilliard hasn’t been exhibited for over two decades, and it’s safe to say that in that time his contributions have been thoroughly marginalised, if not forgotten entirely.

The question, then, is whether or not the ICA is right in its publicity: are these works significant, have they been sidelined for any other reason than the simple fact of their quality, or lack thereof?

The answer is firmly positive. These paintings are interesting, compelling and at times challenging. The legitimate weirdness and counter-intuitive relationship between image and text that they manifest makes them more than just interesting social documents: this is an exhibition of paintings that deserves to be seen.

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