Staring into the Light—Mario A. Robinson at Bernarducci Gallery
Staring into the Light: Mario A. Robinson at Bernarducci Gallery
There is nothing like oil paint for evoking form. It can even give body to light. But if you want the weightlessness of light, then you need water media. Sargent, whose oil colors are so magnificent, turned to watercolor to capture pure light. Edward Hopper was a poet of the heaviness of light, and he used oils; Andrew Wyeth followed the lightness of light, and he used tempera and watercolor.
Mario A. Robinson, who has a typically magnificent body of work up at Bernarducci Gallery right now, follows in the footsteps of Wyeth, and he has chosen watercolor for his medium because weightless light is so central to his work. His subject, generally, is people. His system of psychology, which is perfectly adapted to a visual artist, sees people as fundamentally joined to their landscape; and landscape, in turn, to light and weather.
Consider, for instance, The Day Before Sandy.
This woman, with her ruddy cheeks and bulky coat, is intensely part of a place. The light on her is the light of a cloudy day by the sea, that lights flesh with vivid color and no highlights. The breeze picks up her hair, and the back of her head begins to dissolve into the bright flat sky behind her. She is integrated into her place. Not only is she incomprehensible without it – without its momentary interactions with her, without the marks it has left on her skin – but without it, she does not exist as herself at all. She can only be understood in the place she stands. Robinson’s landscapes are extensions of his people and vice versa.
Look at American Dream (self-portrait).
Think about that posture, that attempt at relaxation even as the uneasy head pitches forward. This man has reached the material conditions of his concept of the American dream, but he cannot quite settle into it. Does this image mean quite the same thing without that light bouncing from his shirt back up under the brim of his hat and glinting off the sweat on his face? Do we understand his condition without our sense of the place, a suburban yard in the south, with its riot of plants and humid summer afternoons? To understand the person, we must see the place. To understand the place, we must see its weather, and to see its weather, it suffices that we catch the quality of light – whether the blank overcast light of impending rain by the sea, or light through a haze of heat and vapor in the artist’s native Oklahoma – the light is key.
This work has the same lean charisma as Wyeth, the same loner’s revelation that a lifetime spent studying the land, in order to avoid looking at people, prepared the eye and soul to appreciate, through the authority of place, the unique dignity of people who have been shaped by that place.
It also has the same cleanliness as Wyeth. This is not only the cleanliness of crisp watercolor stopping at hard edges, though it is this as well. It is the disinfectant quality of light itself.
Look at those luminous shadows and sun-baked walls! Look at the stark blacks of the glimpsed interiors, the tiny hints of clutter and disorder in a weed growing against the foot of a building, a chair left slightly crooked on a balcony. The analogical quality of art comes to the fore: just as good healthy daylight burns away bacteria, so too its depiction burns away ignorance. This is a painting that celebrates coming to know a place, to appreciate its idiosyncrasies and tiny pleasures. In the context of Robinson’s portraits, which teach us the ways that places make people, it is a lesson in how to be made by a place – that is, in how to live. It teaches us to open our eyes to the redemptive specificity of the moment and the location in which we find ourselves, to remember that all things are strange and miraculous, that each place is almost as good as the next. It teaches that happiness is not sequestered in some special scene, but rather inheres in all scenes, if only they are viewed properly: flooded in light, bathed in knowledge, enjoyed as an ongoing chosen act of living.