Johanna Robinson: Painting in the Space Between Real Life and Imagination

Johanna Robinson has been creating oil based paintings for the past decade. In her more recent series entitled “Against Nature” and “Of Land and Sea,” Robinson appropriates images from Internet searches and her personal archive and through the process of traditional oil painting creates complex imagery which complicates these arbitrary scenes. It is in Robinson’s use of internet based imagery combined with her more traditional approach to painting which creates this complex dichotomy.

Robinson, who is a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, moved to Portland, Oregon in 2010. In this time, she has witnessed the growth of the art scene first hand and has also become an active member. Robinson has taken part in Portland’s Artist Open Studios for the past 3 years and often attends local lectures and events which promote the arts. She has shown her work nationally and has also attended the Vermont Studio Center Residency Program. I recently spoke with Robinson, whom I attended school with, about what her experience post art school has been like, how she has developed her own strict studio practice and what the state of painting is in today’s contemporary art world.

Anni Irish: How did you first get interested in painting?

Johanna Robinson: My interest in painting was fostered through my elementary school art teacher, Clay Fried. I think that early encouragement in the arts is so important. Having someone to provide me with a foundational belief that it was something I had a talent for has propelled me into keeping at it all these years later.

A.I.: What was your undergraduate experience like at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts?

J.R: I’d say I have a love/hate relationship with my experience at SMFA. The all inclusiveness that I had experienced in the art community of my public school education was absent from the competitive nature of the contemporary art world that I learned about at SMFA. During critiques, it often felt as though constructive criticism was replaced with flat out critical attacks on student’s work. In my mind, the school seemed to have an attitude of “It’s tough to make it in the art world so we will make it tough for you here too, in order to better prepare you for what’s to come.” I believe an adviser told me that almost word for word during orientation. As a result, I certainly have a thicker skin than I did going into the program, but on the other hand, with the price tag on private art school education I am torn on whether or not this philosophy to “make or break” an artist is the best way to go about art education.

A.I.: But don’t you think there is something to be said about a program that is attempting to prepare you for very real life scenarios?

J.R.: Yes, although I don’t think the art world needs to be as elitist and exclusionary as it comes off being. Perhaps the place to change this is at the college level, rather than to reinforce these ideas for the next generation of artists. Not to say that criticism should be done away with; of course it is a necessary component to the creation of strong work.

A.I.: How would you describe your studio practice?

J.R.: I try to think of my studio practice as a “real” job. I commit to spend a predetermined amount of hours there each session as if I am actually clocking in and out. Some of the best advice that I’ve gotten from other artists over the years is that you can’t always just wait for inspiration to strike, you have to get the work done on a regular basis regardless of how you are feeling. As a result, I have taken this concept up into my practice in order to make sure I always have a few different projects going at once; I can pick up where I left off working on one piece if I am not feeling inspired to work on another.

Image courtesy of the artist

A.I.: Now that you have been out of school for a few years, what are some of the hardest challenges you have had to face maintaining your studio practice?

J.R.: For my first few years out of school, I didn’t have much of a studio practice. I was living at my parent’s house and often working up to 60 hours a week. During that time, my studio was a gardening shed in the backyard and I would paint when I could during the weekends. I knew that if art was something I was going to continue to seriously pursue, I would have to make some major lifestyle changes. I moved to Portland in 2010 in order to work my day job less and have more time for art.

A.I.: You describe your art as being at the intersection of “reality and imagination.” I am interested in how you create scenarios in your paintings that seem to suggest or imply disastrous events. I was hoping you could talk more about that and how you generate the kinds of images you produce and where you think the moment of overlap between reality and imagination intersect for you in the creative process?

J.R.: The source material for the majority of my paintings comes from Google images. I begin with a very broad idea of what I would like to paint that changes drastically from start to finish. Occasionally the imagery comes from a news source, but I prefer to leave the final product ambiguous enough that the viewer cannot determine the precise event. This way, one can project their own interpretation onto the work. I prefer for the imagery to portray an overall feeling or mood rather than talk about something too specific, so that the imagination has an opportunity to come into play. I strive to create images that touch on something universal to our contemporary human experience.

A.I.: Where do you think oil painting, and painting in general fits into the contemporary art world?

J.R.: Personally I would love to see painting centered discussions move past such a preoccupation with materials. A decade ago it seemed as though everyone was caught up with “What is painting, what counts as a painting, and why even use paint to make a painting?” Whether the medium is oil paint, acrylic or bubble gum for that matter, recently I have noticed more and more contemporary art trending back to being about the subject matter rather than materials. Perhaps this is because so many artists are becoming multidisciplinary – it’s no longer necessary to proclaim yourself to fit within the label of a painter, sculptor or filmmaker. Whatever medium best portrays the idea is valid, and the expressive nature of painting makes this a valid choice for many artists.

Image courtesy of the artist

A.I.: Having lived in Portland now for four years and previously living in Boston for college and growing up outside of New York City, how would you characterize the art scene in Portland?

J.R.: The art scene in Portland is really wonderful. It’s small enough that everything is very accessible, without being so small that one feels there is a lack of new work to see. The art scene has really taken off during the four years that I’ve been here, with new independent galleries opening practically every few months. At times I can hardly keep up with all the openings, artist talks and lectures. Different quadrants of the city have their openings on First, Second and Last Thursdays, and First Fridays – we have art events happening almost every day of the week!

A.I.: As an up and coming an artist, what was part of the appeal of you moving to Portland? And what advice would you give other artists trying to make it?

J.R.: Having moved to Portland pre-Portlandia (the IFC series) I had been hearing great things about the creative culture here, but wasn’t really sure what to expect. Of course the affordability was a huge draw, and I felt confident that I would be able to find a studio space that would have been difficult to afford in NY. My advice to other artists trying to make it would be to create a lifestyle for yourself where you actually have time to devote to your practice, even if that means changing locations.

Image courtesy of the artist

A.I.: I know you have a somewhat complicated relationship to the idea of graduate school. Speaking for myself as someone who has several degrees and can’t seem to get ahead I see both the value and danger in it. What have been some of your more recent hesitations about going and do you see any kind of benefit to an MFA degree?

J.R.: Recently I have been very caught up with the idea of trying to create my own graduate school experience for free. I attend as many artist talks, lectures and discussions as I can. I register for art crit groups and book club meetings. I definitely want my career to be centered around the act of “making” rather than teaching, so there is not much incentive for me to pursue an MFA in order to improve my job prospects. Additionally, I am hesitant to enter an MFA program because I have met several artists who have ended up hating art and not making work for years after attending graduate school. But then just as soon as I write off the idea completely, I will come across an artist’s work that I just love who is a recent graduate and I catch myself thinking “Wow, I bet their work so much stronger due to their experience at the program.” So I suppose it remains to be seen if I will be getting my MFA.

A.I.: That is a really interesting idea in terms of you creating your own grad school experience
and is inline with the free university movement. What are your thoughts about that? I will say, although there are required classes tied to any kind of degree granting program, graduate school in general is a very individualized experience.

J.R.: I have always been very interested in the free university movementever since my time in Boston where there were a number of free schools, although I’ve never become heavily involved in the movement. With the prevalence of the internet, I think the movement is gaining even more momentum beyond being an underground, radicalized idea, as many universities have begun offering their courses for free on sites like where I have taken a number of courses. I think it’s so important to keep pursuing your interests even once you are out of a degree granting program. It brings the purpose of learning back to be about learning, rather than paying for a degree and thinking about where that piece of paper will get you.

Magnolia_Soulangea (1)
Image courtesy of the artist

A.I.: What are some authors, books and artists you are currently responding to?

J.R.: I have always found myself most inspired by non-art subjects and art about non-art subjects. Because of this, I have considered going into other fields, but I always find myself drawn back to art because art has the benefit of allowing one to think and create work about such a breadth of topics. Neuroscience is my current fascination, specifically biological psychology. I’m currently reading Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, who has even done work on neuroesthetics, which is the scientific study of the neural basis for the contemplation and creation of a work of art.

I have also been getting into data – data compiled from brain scans, weather patterns, sociological statistics – you name it. There are a number of artists I have recently come across who use data to make their work, such as Nathalie Miebach.

And of course I’m interested in good old fashioned painterly paintings, particularly of compelling subject matter. Humans have been drawn to mark making to portray an image since paleolithic times; I believe this is innately in our nature to want to create. A recent favorite painter is Ruprecht von Kaufmann, along with my old time favorites Dana Schutz and Allison Schulnik.

A.I.: What are some projects you are currently working on?

J.R.: Currently I’m working on a series of oil paintings on vellum, which has been a wonderful challenge. Because the paper is translucent, light passes through the finished piece, meaning every brush stroke shows and there is no painting over previous marks. This way, I have really been able to focus on just the most essential brush strokes of the work. I suppose the series will be in a way about simplifying a narrative down to it’s most basic elements. It’s always very difficult for me to describe the concept of a series while it’s still in progress, because I am still discovering for myself what the work is about.

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