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James Robie
at CSU Northidge, Northridge, CA / Gallery KM, Santa Monica, CA
Preview by Elenore Welles

This survey of James Robie's diverse work embrace both design and fine art shaped by one dramatic vision.

Multi-faceted, eclectic and diverse are adjectives that spring to mind when considering James Robie’s creative output. Robie views his prolific art career as a journey, one that spans 43 years and has steered him through a variety of mediums. A current comprehensive survey features 175 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs and graphics.

Robie comes from a family of craftsmen: his father, a precision tool builder; his paternal grandfather and great grandfather were stonecutters. However, it has been his exposure to masters of both the fine arts and the graphic arts that were instrumental in forming his ideals.

His formal education started in the 1960s when he trained with rigorous taskmasters in graphic design. Past experiences also include working at a tooling company where he learned plaster casting, apprenticing to a wood pattern maker, and fabricating prints at Gemini G.E.L. The combination of practices not only taught him multidisciplinary approaches, but the art of collaboration as well. Later he studied at UCLA and Yale with painters Richard Diebenkorn, John McCracken and Al Held, among others. Their intrinsic influences can be found in his figurative as well as in his abstract paintings.

Though much of his craftsmanship can be traced to ancestry and a broad range of educational training, his work ethic and precision evolved from his own ideals and sensibilities. In “Summer Day,” or “Coney Island,” for instance, figures on the beach romp through a heat induced haze. The visions may carry traces of Diebenkorn’s influence, but the atmospheric mood is distinctive.

From abstract artists he learned to understand models of formal concepts, notable not only in his paintings and sculptures, but applied to his photographs as well. When photographing water towers and industrial structures, for example, it is their geometric patterns that become the focus of his attention.

Robie achieves a sense of movement and dynamism, whatever the medium. Particularly vital examples are the luminous colors and designs found in the painting “Shadow Play,” and in the carved and painted wood sculpture, “Garden.”  It is apparent, also, in the twisted forms of some freestanding wood sculptures.

Further visual impact stems from the stylized abstractions of signs, symbols and emblems. Though an essential element in commercial ventures, Robie uses them to enliven his fine art as well. Symbols that vitalize the painting “Ancient Writing” are duplicated in the alabaster sculpture “The Beginning,” where they are formed from oxidized Dutch metal.

Robie continues to experiment with materials and tools, combining dyes, gels, bleach and watercolor, often exploiting accidents to achieve new and unusual visions. His quest for animated surfaces is evident in his latest large-scale paintings, “Linear Concepts” and “Other Infuences.” Featured concurrently in the concurrent Gallery KM exhibition, vibrantly colored geometric fields are scored with lines, scribing, scratches, and glyphs. As in “Ancient Dream,” they are set against black backgrounds. Black lines that run through the forms further enhance the colors, making them as luminous as stained glass windows.

His extensive education may very well have been the impetus for his many achievements, considering that he himself attributes his visual acuity the result of “intense preparation and experience acquired over the years.” Yet, though his education and exterior observations allowed him to derive an understanding of formal concepts, it is his interior impulses that make the works distinctive, especially when commercial endeavors require a balance between logic with illusion.   

As the owner of a design business, his production of graphic works has been prodigious. The lessons he derived from early training with graphic masters continue to be inspirational, with the exposure he received to the delicate balancing act that occurs between artist and client remaining especially valuable. Deft at managing the visual and emotional crisscrossing between fine art and commercial values, similar shapes and symbols often show up in both.

Whether designing for the Olympic Organizing Committee, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Los Angeles Convention Center, or for a multitude of corporate accounts, he maintains a clear sense of spatial definition and chromatic range. The Teledyne Technologies Report, to cite one example, has imagery that is clear and concise, yet imaginative. Though four disparate shapes are interlocked to create an intricate design, it appears visually uncomplicated. Whatever the medium Robie may be working in, it’s drama of the vision is that counts. 

Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2011

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