Jenny Robinson | claiming space
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 8 may 2019
When I came to the discipline of art history for my master’s degree, I was fresh from a bachelor's in philosophy with a concentration in aesthetics. I knew, and had read most of the cannon on art: Arthur Danto, John Dewey, David Hume, Plato, and the rest of the Dead White Guys. With my head up in the clouds among ideas, and ideas about ideas, and ideas about the ideas about the ideas, I found I had arrived in graduate school a bit under prepared. I was lacking the understanding of certain social concepts necessary for art historical dialog. Thus, I had to be a quick study of racial and gender power dynamics, identities and -isms, and the male gaze, but probably most significant for me were the ideas around space and how we us it. Not just the way we consciously or subconsciously label space, such as “black spaces,” “white spaces,” “queer spaces,” or “cis spaces,” but also the idea of how space is taken up and held by individuals. I think about this probably more than any other social concept as I move around my day. It comes up when I see man-spreaders on the train, or I catch myself looking at my reflection in a store window, fighting off disordered thoughts about my body believing that it takes up too much space in the world. These passing moments come from the ingrained programming: Men deserve space, to fill it and own it. Women need to be small, quiet, and delicate, easily subdued and tucked in the corner. Women who go against this are thought of as bossy, bitchey, annoying, or just simply “too much.” That’s just the message for white, cis, abled, straight sized, hetero women. Go against any one of those standards, and the space you are allotted will decrease dramatically.
All these things come to mind when I think about Jenny Robinson and her work, neither of which are afraid to take up space. When Robinson is in the room, you’ll know it. She is unapologetic about her opinions or her needs. I was once stuck in a train station in Wuhan, China with Robinson. We had been told by our hosts that all we needed to do was go to the counter and show our passports to collect our tickets to Beijing. After arrival, it became clear that this was far from the case. The woman behind the desk was not able to help us, and after staring at her computer screen and punching a few things in, returned our passports shaking her head. The Google translate app on my phone was getting us nowhere, and the time to departure was ticking closer by the minute. After we had been turned away for the last time from the counter, this was the point where I would have, oh, I don’t know, just sat down on the floor and cried? Robinson was having none of it. With seven minutes left before the train departed, she declared that we were just going to will ourselves onto that train no matter what. We had the printed receipts from our ticket purchase, and her plan was that we would just start shouting about how late we were, push our way through security, and run to the train. Before I could come up with an excuse about how that is absolutely terrifying and I would rather just live out the rest of my life in the Wuhan train station busking for renminbi, she was off, and I had no choice but to follower her. At just a few inches shy of six feet, Robinson was a head taller than most of the people in the train station that morning. She waved her sheet of paper in the air and just kept shouting “We’re late, got to go!” for the benefit of anyone around who spoke English. She pushed passed the security line, didn’t bother to put any of her bags on the x-ray machine, or acknowledge the shouting guards. About half way to the train we were finally stopped by a stern looking woman in a crisp uniform, and Robinson stuck her printout under the woman’s nose. She frowned at it, said something into her walkie talkie, and motioned for us to come with her. Not knowing if we were being lead to a train or a holding cell, I don’t think I took a breath that entire walk. Meanwhile, Robinson turned around and said to me under her breath, “Now we’re getting somewhere.” We were taken through a couple of locked gates and down a flight of stairs, at which point I started thinking about if I had the U.S. Embassy’s number anywhere in my phone. We popped out right next to our train just as it was starting up its engine. The stern woman unceremoniously shoved us into the dining car while yelling something at the train attendant on board just as the wheels started to turn, and we were on our way to Beijing.
Robinson’s unapologetic attitude to space is as present in her art practice as it is in her personality. Her prints are some of the biggest around. In the last exhibition I did with her at Davidson Galleries, she had one piece which was 60 x 80 inches (152.5 x 203 cm). The hanging and de-installing of which probably took 4 years off our preparor’s life. The subject of the works themselves also address space, how we use it, and how we engage with it. But before I get to all that, a little context.
Robinson is originally from England, but she spent the better part of her childhood in Borneo with two sisters and a brother. It was a pretty wild upbringing. Robinson tells of running around wearing little clothes, playing in storm drains, and shouting with local children all surrounded by the colours of life on the equator. To this day the sound of monsoon rain on a tin roof is her favourite in the world. When her father would get leave every two years or so, the family would travel, sometimes spending three weeks at a time on a shipping liner, stopping off in places like Bombay and Singapore.
That all came to an abrupt halt just before Robinson turned eight. Her parents shipped her off to a Catholic boarding school in cold, rainy, England. Her family wasn’t religious in the least, but this particular boarding school was specifically for the children of expats, therefore, it seemed to make the most sense for them. So from the freedom, warm rains, and open streets of Borneo, the young Robinson suddenly found herself attending six am Latin mass and wearing black mantillas with the other girls from around the world. All while nuns in the full penguin outfit traversed the aisles swinging intense. “That cured me of religion for life,” she recalls.
Despite what was the biggest cultural shock of her life, Robinson thrived at boarding school and it was where she first received encouragement for her artistic gifts. Back in Borneo art hadn’t been much a part of the Robinson household. While her mother was very supportive and took up some painting herself later in life, her father, on the other hand, was an engineer and a practical man. “Can you draw a horse, Jenny? You’re not an artist unless you can draw a horse,” he would say.
“I think he thought art was something I would do before I got married and became a good little house wife, but that’s the generation he was from,” Robinson says.
It was in boarding school Robinson first took up drawing. She found it incredibly grounding in what was a somewhat turbulent time. She talks about how present you need to be in the moment when you’re sketching, she used it as a way to anchor herself and take note of what was around her. It was a way of coping, because even after the move to boarding school, things kept changing. Her parents got divorced, her father moved to Africa, her mother to Singapore, and all the kids were shuttered around quite a bit due to that. She used drawing as a way to anchor herself in whatever new place she found herself. It was also in boarding school that Robinson received her first official accolade. She won an art prize for drawing a large pinecone, seems she’s always like to work big. She got on with her classmates as the school was full of other expat children they all had a lot in common. There were girls there from Fiji and Africa and they bonded together. In the most British style, Robinson sums up the whole experience with, “You just got on with it really.”
All that drawing brought her to art school where she was first introduced to printmaking and it clicked. She remembers completely falling in love with it in a moment where she realised that this is what she was supposed to be doing. To this day she strongly identifies as a printmaker. “I am a printmaker to my very core,” she says, “It is important to identify as a printmaker if you are one, because it’s often seen as the lesser of the fine arts. I’m not ashamed of being a printmaker, I live and breath ink.”
After art college Robinson got a job at an animation studio. She did drawing for Grace Jones videos and the first Highlander movie. It paid quite well, but was horribly boring. While there, she saved up enough money to go traveling for a year or two and did just that. Originally she had a traveling companion in an ex-boyfriend, but two weeks into the trip she’d had enough of him. “I remember so well, we were standing on a train platform in Bombay and I said to him, ‘You can get on any train you like, but just not the one I’m getting on.’” From that moment on, she was on her own, just her and her backpack, for the next year and half in India, China, and all over South East Asia. She still looks back on it as one of the best times of her life. In her backpack she kept sketchbooks and a box of watercolours, and used her drawing as she always had to ground herself in the space she was in. She still has the sketchbooks she took with her and when she looks back at them she knows exactly where she was, what the light was like, and how many children were around her. “When you draw like that you’re really concentrating on the images around you, it’s quite an intense time, which is something you don’t really get when you’re traveling.”
In 2018, Robinson and her husband relocated to Slovenia, but before this had spent the past 20 years in San Francisco, California which was where art practice really grew. While she had an art practice before that, she had been raising her young two boys for a few years. Once she was in the Bay Area, The Kala Art Institute came into her life, which had a big influence on her practice. Kala hosts artist residencies throughout the year, so in addition to a core group of talented and supportive artists, Robinson was able to be exposed to the practices of artist from around the world coming and going. Importantly as well, Kala had several large presses, one of which could print work up to 44 x 66 inches. Robinson’s work from this time is of skeletons of buildings and the back side of billboards, the fragile structures holding up the American dream, taking up space before they are inevitably torn down for the next set of condos.
More recently, however, Robinson has been working more in abstraction, mirror, and tessellation, these forms reflect the printmaking process itself. She’s printing almost solely on Gampi — a paper which looks fragile but is actually very strong — to document our urban environments — which look strong but are actually quite fragile.
Robinson’s work takes up space. She makes large works on paper with industrial forms, and because of this and because of our programmed explications about who can take up space, people most often assume her prints are done by a man. She has stories to tell of men coming into her studio during an open day, and despite the fact that she is the only one in the studio and that her name is on the door, they look around and ask, “Where’s the artist?” At times, even after introducing herself as the author of the works hanging on the walls, her visitors would insist that she must be mistaken. Certainly these works must have been done by a man. When her husband is in the room, visitors will ask if he is the artist, and even when he says no, they continue to talk to him. “Hey buddy, how many pounds per square inch do you get out of that press?”
In spite of, or maybe because of, all of this, Robinson refuses not to be seen. Whether it’s hosting a cocktail party at SGCI San Fransisco, running through a Chinese train station, or most recently, as you’ll hear in the podcast episode featuring Robinson, telling off the Leopold Museum in Vienna for showing reproductions of watercolour in their Egon Schiele exhibition. I whole-heartedly find Robinson a goddamn inspiration. Her fearlessness and demand to be seen is something I aspire to.
As for the future, Robinson and her husband recently sat down in a beer garden together to talk about the possibility of starting an artist residency together sometime in the next few years. All part of Robinson’s master plan to fall down dead at her studio when the time comes. At this point, they don’t even know what country it would be in, but I know this residency is going to be a great one, and will be centred around, what else, but “a bloody big press.”