In the Studio: Mario Robinson
Mario Robinson—a realist painter from Point Pleasant, New Jersey, who is known for his telling, timeless portrayals of American life—has had a packed schedule for pretty much the last ten years. As his popularity and the demand for his work has continued to increase, he has found himself in a whirlwind of commitments and requests: workshops, events, solo exhibitions, commissions, publications, book deals, instructional videos, sponsorships, and more. Just as these opportunities from the outside world continue to present themselves, inside the studio Robinson shared that he has decided to scale back his involvement and reevaluate not only how he spends his time and energy but also how his work is seen and appreciated by the public.
“I think the whole business of art needs an overhaul,” the artist said frankly as we sat down for our interview in his shore house and studio at the end of January. “An artist is expected to create the work, ship the work, frame it, promote it, and then send it to the gallery with the hope that it might sell. Then we split the sale fifty percent—most of the time you’re breaking even, and it’s often not immediate compensation. I’m not comfortable with that model anymore.” The artist confessed that for the last two years he has been putting aside certain paintings—stacked inside large plastic bags and stored under his bed or in his attic—for his own personal collection. “I think art should be appreciated and accessible to the public, in a permanent collection or museum setting of some sort, and I also think an artist should have some control on what is shared and seen,” he said. “Sometimes I think about important paintings that ‘got away’—those that have significance to me and others that are now hanging over someone’s sofa for decoration. I don’t want to just decorate people’s homes. I want the art to be seen and to mean more than that.”
The artist is preparing for the future by keeping these works separate for possible retrospectives or museum shows, as well as for the appreciation of long-time collectors or colleagues who visit his studio. Robinson has been doing this since 2012, after several years of feeling like a factory producing product. “The thing is, I don’t regret it,” he admitted. “It’s what I had to do to make a living in my younger years as an artist. The irony, though, is that when you’re young and have the energy, ideas, and talent, you don’t yet have recognition so these amazing pieces of art get sold for a relatively low price, and the artist loses. You also start to become known for a certain style or subject, and requests keep pouring in for those types of paintings. For me it was the ‘porch paintings’ or ‘African American portraits.’ I didn’t want to get pigeonholed or stuck on a production line; I needed to break away from some of that pressure and really think about what I was painting.”
When Robinson and I met for our interview, he had just returned from giving a demo at the TRAC conference, was wrapping up the final proofs for his upcoming book with Monacelli Press—which will be published this April—and was shipping his painting Ticket Booth to Arcadia Contemporary for the LA Art Show. [Several days after this interview, before the show opened, the painting sold to J.J. Abrams, the director and co-writer of the 2015 Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie.] From the sound of it, the artist was still as busy as ever, but I sensed that his decision to be selective with his commitments and to work with people who understand his vision is giving him greater peace of mind. “What I choose now is more balanced and intentional,” he explained. “At one point I was scatter-shooting and burning myself out. Now I’m with a dealer who I feel understands and encourages my vision and is a really competent businessman. I teach less, I’ve stopped sending paintings en masse to multiple galleries—it’s a healthier approach. And for the first time in a more than a decade, I feel like I finally have some time and energy again.”
That extra energy and time will undoubtedly go straight into the studio—a place where Robinson would rather be than anywhere else. The room where the artist creates is modest and simple but clearly serves the purpose of undistracted productivity: nothing excessive or unnecessary. It is full of light and a few visual nods to Robinson’s old-soul aesthetic, such as antique pieces of furniture, wooden boats and plaques, and American-flag memorabilia. Knowing that Robinson paints in oil, watercolor, and pastel, I expected to possibly see a few surfaces upon which he works, but he actually creates all of his paintings on a large architect’s drafting table. He tapes his surface—paper or canvas—to the table and works either by the natural light of the nearby window or with the attached artificial lamp.
As Robinson shared several paintings in his studio, he described how art has been a vehicle for reconciling difficult dynamics and relationships. One of the first paintings he spoke of was of his father standing in a wheat field in Oklahoma, where Robinson spent the first twelve years of his life. The artist explained how this painting represented a dialogue between him and his father—whom he didn’t know until he was in his twenties—during a season when they were trying to bond and make up for lost time. Another portrait showed his grandmother in a wheelchair after many years of struggling with the aftermath of a stroke. Then there was a revealing self-portrait, with the artist bearded and looking worn, painted during a period when he brought his mother from Alabama to his home in New Jersey so she could recover from an aneurism. “These are all real-life stories, they’re not imagined or made up,” Robinson said. “But they’re not just my stories, they’re American stories. Everyone had a mother and a father and a grandmother—hopefully people bring their own experience to the paintings and find something that resonates with them personally.”
Several years ago Robinson gave a presentation of his work at Syracuse University, and the students’ response made him see just how important relatability can be. Consequently, he began making a conscious effort to include other perspectives in his paintings. “As I went through the slides and described the different experiences that inspired each painting, I realized that the students weren’t connecting to what I was showing,” he remembered. “I felt I had to apologize to them at the end because my art didn’t meet them where they were. I decided after that presentation that I want someone in their twenties to see themselves in my work—and someone blonde and someone from a different region of the country. I wasn’t intentionally just painting one subject or type; artists paint the world and people they know. That experience generated a new chapter in my process: mixing up ethnicities, genders, and age groups. I want everyone to be involved and represented and find something they can connect to in my work.”
The artist then took out some paintings he created in the years that followed: people, places, situations, and events he encountered at various times. The first was a portrait of his wife standing in front of the ocean the morning before Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. “I couldn’t believe the electric quality in the air and the visual signs that this incredible force of nature was starting to display,” he said. “Even though we were being evacuated, I just couldn’t pull myself away from watching this unfold.” Others were portrait sketches of certain people he felt compelled to paint, such a sketch of a professional model from one of his workshops, a man that Burton Silverman suggested sit for him, a young woman with numerous tattoos, and a homeless man who was living at a shelter near one of Robinson’s workshops in Atlanta. He also showed me several sketches and drawings that were some of his personal favorites.
“People often ask me whether I prefer working in oil, watercolor or pastel, but I have to say my favorite medium is drawing,” the artist said. “There’s nothing better than going out into the world with just pencil and paper and recording your observations. I’ve always drawn a lot and I plan to get back to it, really focusing on structure and simplicity of line. In addition to being very cathartic, drawing also reminds me of my childhood. It was my first love and something I did instinctually from a young age.” Robinson shared that when he was a young boy living with his grandmother in Keyport, New Jersey, he would come from school and just sit in his room and draw. His mother and stepfather had left him with his grandmother because of the poor school system in their area, and he remembers spending many hours alone, sketching and drawing at his desk. “There were aspects of my childhood that I wish had gone differently,” he admitted, “but I now realize I would never have become the artist I am today if I didn’t have all that time by myself to sketch and explore.”
When Robinson was a teenager, his high school art teacher immediately noticed his giftedness and spoke with his grandmother and mother about getting him into an art college. The teacher helped him assemble a collection of work and bring it to Portfolio Day at Pratt Institute. After three years in the army following high school, Robinson was finally able to attend Pratt, where he received his B.F.A. in 1992. Because of his high school teacher’s interest in his art and the way she encouraged and fostered his development, Robinson has a sensitivity to young artists who look to him for advice and teaching, and a genuine concern about leaving something worthwhile to future generations. “They’re depending on us to keep this alive and moving,” the artist said. “When I think of the artists I looked up to when I was just starting out—Dean Mitchell, Burton Silverman, Max Ginsburg—and I see how much they went through to lay the groundwork for what we are doing now, I am truly amazed and grateful. I hope our generation is not just collecting ‘likes,’ but really leaving behind a legacy in artwork and practice.”
Robinson mentors several young students and is sometimes shocked to see how much they compare their abilities and progression to other artists. “I tell them to relax, that that their time will come,” he said. “I remember always seeing the same artists promoted in the magazines and at events and thinking, What do they have that I don’t have? You can drive yourself crazing lamenting and comparing. Now it’s like, wait, did I become one of those names? No, I want out! Like they say, be careful what you wish for. Every new level of success brings a new set of challenges and problems. You feel as if in some way you are always striving for that next level and never quite arriving. That’s why I really want to just simplify my life and art again.” Reaching for a watercolor painting from the pile of paintings on the floor the artist added, “This isn’t that complicated. It’s paper and color and some of my observations on life. But the art world has to matte it and frame it and promote it and sell it, and then all of a sudden it becomes complicated. And the artist as a result starts to become complicated. I know that young artists need to sell paintings, and I know that when you are just starting out you want to be as successful and sought after as the artists whose names you see repeatedly. But sometimes you just have to stop and appreciate where you are. Enjoy your life while you are young, don’t become so obsessed with your art and ‘making it’ that you lose sight of what matters.”
That artist said that it’s rare to have the opportunity to talk about these observations and thoughts in depth, and that is why he loves some of the art gatherings and events that have surfaced over the last several years. It was his first time at TRAC this past November, and he was inspired not only by the presentations and demos but also by getting to know several artists whose work he has long admired. “We have an amazing community,” he said. “There is such great camaraderie and support of what we’re all trying to accomplish.” As much as Robinson enjoyed being on the West Coast and spending time with like-minded artists, he also described the ‘withdrawal’ that comes from being away from his art for too long. “You get so filled up at those events,” he said. “You’re listening to all these inspiring thoughts and watching different artists give demos—on the days when I wasn’t painting I literally felt my levels go down. I’m looking at the artist’s palette and the brushes, and I almost have to stop myself from picking them up and starting to paint. When you’re an artist, it’s just what you do. You get up every day and go to the easel. You get to that point where you don’t even think about it anymore, it’s just instinctual. Getting back to the studio after traveling or teaching a workshop is the best feeling. No matter what’s going on in the world around me, I can come in here, slow down, and wrap myself in something redemptive.”
All photography this article courtesy Allison Malafronte unless otherwise indicated