Even though the 31-year-old is using materials often found at the Metrolina Expo and estate sales (i.e., old photographs of people, antique frames, mounted butterflies), his art is very risk-taking. He uses India ink, oil paint and electric light as his media, and, in addition to using light bulbs hidden behind plexiglas and board, he also employs the visible electric cords as they run down the walls and along the floor. The light in these works has the quality of an old parchment lamp shade that has gotten knocked too close to the light bulb. His assemblages, all presented in boxes, give you the isolated sensation you might feel at dusk, remembering someone or someplace you may not see again.
Robinson calls his pieces "specimens" because he intends for viewers to look at his collected artifacts with a detached, scientific view. Although it's often said that all art is autobiographical -- and these works do seem highly personal -- Robinson says that none of the photos in his works are of his relatives and his assemblages aren't taken from his own experiences.
When he's at his best, Robinson's work produces visual and emotional unity. "Specimen IV (Lullaby)," for instance, combines in a vertical wooden box three butterfly specimens, the sheet music of an old Christian hymn, a picture of perhaps a comforting relative in a painful family situation, and a working music box. Bold letters on the side of the box state EMERGENCY. This is a good memory to break open when things get too dysfunctional.
Also successful here is "Specimen V (Noble Silence)," which features a bold male face that looks a lot like Robinson wearing a gold paper crown. It's accompanied by a statement on the canvas: "There is something to be said for the noble silence that flows from the soul and mingles with the beauty of the earth."
The artist, who grew up near Newton, NC, at Drums Crossroad, uses traditional items which, ironically, serve to show his well-developed understanding of contemporary art. His simplest work here is the most beautiful. "Specimen #17" features a trio of men standing close to each other, each with a hand on the next man's shoulder, in a landscape of trees that repeat their harmony. This piece is an excellent example of minimalism, the visual pared down to its basic form and beauty.
Another handsome minimal piece, "Specimen VI (Throughout All the Ages of the World)," communicates the artist's spirituality, featuring symbols of Christ touching on top of a piece of wood emblazoned with the phrase, "Throughout all the ages of this world I have loved you -- even before you were born you were mine."
In Passing, a recent six-artist show at the Mint Museum organized by their new contemporary curator Carla Hanzal, Robinson's installation featured visible light bulbs rather than the hidden ones here, which gave that work a much colder feel than these Americana images. The Mint piece was directly linked to Robinson's hero, the French conceptual artist, Christian Boltanski, who works with exposed light bulbs and vintage photographs.
The 13 works at Blue Pony are inconsistent in mood. It's quite a jolt to see images about the beauty of nature and the love of friends, then turn to "Specimen II (Ashes of Forgetfulness)," a photo of nude men during the Holocaust having their heads shaved before they enter the gas chamber.
"The Simple Dream" starts out with the simplicity of an old, collarless dress shirt hanging on a wire coat hanger in a plexiglas box. On the front of the box, white handwriting notes, "It all started with a dream -- just a simple one at that." But the piece loses its simplicity as a white cloth ladder hangs off the shirt and seems superfluous.
In one work, it seems that Robinson is more in love with his artifacts than his message. "Specimen XIV (Changing Season 1)" features a beautiful wooden mantle clock used as the box for an old photo of an elementary school class standing in front of bare, winter trees. The words on the piece say, "Each generation is a season ever changing." That statement doesn't seem nearly as interesting as the beauty of the clock.
If Robinson has a soulmate among Charlotte artists, it would be Mary Todd Shaw, who makes boxes much smaller than Robinson's, inspired by the haunting constructions of the famed eccentric Joseph Cornell.
Robinson's show isn't so much about highly finished surface or craftsmanship, as we often see in Charlotte, and it isn't primarily about nostalgia. Juxtaposing the local flea market and the international conceptual art scene, Robinson's work is about taking risks, primarily with materials and issues of intimacy. It feels like he's reaching inward in order to reach out to us. It's exciting to see an artist confident enough to take such risks in public.
The exhibit Specimens: New Works by Mikel Robinson will be on display at The Blue Pony Gallery, 3202-A North Davidson Street, through October 11. The gallery is open 11am-5pm Tuesday through Saturday. For additional information, call 704-334-9390.