What I like best are the details he chooses to include, or perhaps instead, chooses not to exclude. In almost all the acrylic paintings, we see a very contemporary mix of the ornate with the slightly more plebian. Carved wooden furniture and beautiful looking objects are all mixed up with folding chairs and metal tables, the kind of stuff that is cheap and mass produced. It’s the jumble of antique and exotic up against the ultra modern and ugly. He’s painting exactly what he sees and that’s charming. It’s childlike, but the mark making is exquisitely sophisticated and it’s a marvellous combination. Also the paintings themselves have a genteel sheen quite suitable to brocade and gilt, but instead they are housed within mitred cardboard frames. Although a mere painter, Robert is definitely taking a hint from some of the edgier artists around town, those who’s work is made up of or includes recycled and unconventional materials. Or maybe they just share a common ancestor. I am thinking all the way back to “the painter”, Van Gogh, and his potato eaters. Either way, this is also good.
I suppose the only thing that rubs a little wrong about this show is the implied (strongly implied) artist as anthropologist idea. The paintings themselves would have been more than sufficient, but the underpinnings, shall we say, are a little trumped up and overblown. A lot of emphasis is put on Robert’s forays into the secret world of Chinatown and the historical hardships of Chinese Canadians. This is a noble pursuit no doubt, but it raises a lot of questions, and the answers to those questions aren’t really very flattering to Robert, I’m afraid. I mean do the Chinese Canadians really need White Robert to breeze in and expose their private places? And are the private spaces in the pictures really so different from the public spaces that we all see everytime we hit C Town? I wonder. Also, do we really need a history lesson via art a la Robert Amos? I grew up in BC. I’ve been learning about the Chinese Canadian contribution to our country since I can remember. I don’t need to be told that what they suffered and what they gave is important. I know that and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who knows that.
All in all, the idea behind the paintings is a little presumptuous. The idea behind the paintings lacks the subtlety and the finesse of the paintings themselves. Unfortunately there is a big artist statement stuck to the wall right in the middle of the exhibition, so it’s hard to ignore what I have come to think of as The Idea! The paintings are lovely, the paintings are excellent. I’d like to have one in my home to be honest. The idea, hmmmm……not so much, but that’s ok, it’s hard to be everything to everyone. So shine on Robert, you crazy diamond. Shine on.