Q+Art: Painter Eric Robinson Exposes Inner Truth with Emotionally Nuanced Portraits
It’s all subjective, Eric Robinson’s semi-autobiographical works seem to say. The Maryland-based artist specializes in the sort of stripped-down portraiture that arouses a spectrum of emotion from its viewers. The degree between one person’s reaction and the next’s is precisely the point: “I'm looking to express the emotional nuances and truths embedded within the self, whether that be through portraiture or figurative works,” Robinson explains.
To tease out the subjective experience of viewing his work, Robinson fills the entire canvas with eyes, lips, nose, and hair, leaving the background intentionally blank. “A painting with a clear intent from the artist can be read in a multitude of ways without background context, usually with a personal emotional connection,” Robinson notes. His work takes an added intimacy from its subject matter—close friends, family, even himself. Robison has a noticeable shock of aquamarine hair, which he uses as a foil to the rich golds and browns of his otherwise earthy palette.
More than an analysis of color and form, however, Robinson’s work looks at Black masculinity through a forgiving lens, leaving room for multiple perspectives and conflicting narratives. His self-portraits, in particular, are psychologically dense, and loaded with symbolic meaning. “Gender, sexuality, spirituality, and pathos all inform my work,” Robinson tells NOT REAL ART. “I'm essentially interested in how these inform each other, which then informs my work.”
Robinson is a painter in the classical sense of the word, relying on form and color to carry his message. Much like Rembrandt before him, Robinson uses the psychology of light to act out universal emotional states—alarm, pleasure, fear—centered on our ever-evolving identities.
Artist Eric Robinson specializes in the sort of stripped-down portraiture that arouses a spectrum of emotion from its viewers.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Eric Robinson discusses the subjective properties of emotion, the elusive fantasy of achieving an art career, and pressing “mute” on the art world once in a while.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
ER: Andrew Salgado.
What are you trying to express with your art?
ER: I'm looking to express the emotional nuances and truths embedded within the self. Whether that be through portraiture or figurative works. This expression is emphasized through the use of color and light.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
ER: How to actually make it in the professional art world. Or at least some beneficial professional advice. I didn't even get proper instruction on painting until I started apprenticing this January. Keep in mind I was in my senior year at the time. The majority of the professors either couldn't give an answer or wouldn't. Of course, there's no one singular piece of golden advice that is the key to achieving success in the art world. But when it seems the prospect of establishing an art career is made to seem more of an elusive fantasy, it becomes a matter of whether the education at hand is even worth anything.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
ER: One of the best pieces of advice I've received was "your value structure is off." By my mentor, Miguel Carter-Fisher. Something he emphasizes is a strong value structure. This alone can make or break a work of art. As it turned out, I really needed to reconsider how I saw and established values in my work. Now whenever I paint, his phrase kind of haunts the back of my head.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
ER: My "stuttering" in pieces. There are times where I'm completely directionless in a painting and I'll just try to no end to polish a turd. It results in a lot of abandoned work.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
ER: Still figuring that out myself! When I'm not painting, I'm usually thinking about painting in some way. Researching color theory, looking for new artists to obsess over, etc, etc. I'll even start a new show or movie simply because I love the style of animation used and find it inspiring.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
ER: It means being able to live off of your craft, from your craft. I think that's the ultimate goal for any professional creative. For me explicitly, it means financial freedom from my art to the point where I can reclaim my gifts solely for myself without any monetary worry of having to piece myself out again.
What role does the artist have in society?
ER: Whether they intend to or not, artists can be described as the inadvertent windows to the people. It's no coincidence that a painting with a clear intent from the artist can be read in a multitude of ways without background context, usually with a personal emotional connection. I see it happen all the time with other artists, as well as myself.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
ER: Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. I had to work as a host in a haunted restaurant that was formerly the Bellgrade Plantation. Even without the work-related experiences, that will be my worst job ever.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
ER: I would rather be commercially successful. I have goals to accomplish and deserve my flowers in life. I feel as though if I'm doing it right, I'll naturally achieve both success and significance.
What’s your relationship with money?
ER: I attract money, money is attracted to me.
How do you deal with the ups and downs of the market?
ER: I just try to be smart about my money, and in "down" times focus more on painting in order to create another time of more abundance.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
ER: The only times I've ever turned down an opportunity is when they don't suit my best interest. For example, if I get a request to paint a landscape or something other than portraiture, I'll turn it down in a heartbeat. In general though, I was taught by an old high school teacher to never say no to an opportunity because you don't know where it'll take you.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
ER: I'm coming towards being able to wrap up a current body of work I've been developing since March this year. It's been under the direction of my mentor, figurative painter Miguel Carter-Fisher. Each set has a different focus: value, hue, chroma, and temperature. It's been a very eye-opening journey and I've learned more from working with Miguel than spending four years at VCU. Once these are done they'll be a part of a very exciting project.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
ER: I try to decompress as much as possible when I can. I also try to avoid stressful situations as much as possible, but life is life, haha. Painting is also therapeutic/cathartic, but can very well be just as taxing mentally.
What do you dislike about the art world? How would you change it if you could?
ER: There seems to be such an urge to be the loudest in the room, usually for the sake of clout or self-gratification to stroke the ego. That's not to say the two can't be said for simultaneously. I'm not really sure how I could go about changing it, but using the mute button really helps.
Is there a specific time you recall feeling marginalized by the art world?
ER: Being a Black artist, my work is usually marginalized. There's the confinement to having to depict Black struggle as a concept throughout my work, mainly my more emotional pieces. It's pretty much inescapable.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
ER: It makes it easy to get to where I need to be. I'm essentially in the middle of being able to drive to my major cities without having to go too far. Being able to reasonably drive to Richmond really works out too. I'm there every Friday for my apprenticeship.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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