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Art review: Vincent Robbins at Cardwell Jimmerson

August 18, 2011 |  6:15 pm

Vincent Robbins, "Leaf"  The Vincent Robbins show at Cardwell Jimmerson is another of the gallery’s great exercises in expansionist — as opposed to revisionist — art history. It doesn’t argue for a radical reordering of the canon, but invites instead the reconsideration of a name all but dropped from its ranks. The show does what many of us are expecting and hoping that the Pacific Standard Time panoply of exhibitions and catalogues will do: broaden the cast of characters in the story of postwar art in Southern California, fill some gaps, thicken the weave.

Robbins, an L.A. native, studied at Art Center College of Design and taught there and at Otis Art Institute for many years. Available biographical material — including an artist’s statement accompanying the show — is sketchy, but the work on view attests to Robbins’ engagement with a constellation of ideas and interests dominant in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. A conceptual, aesthetic approach to language threads through much of the work, for instance. A small photograph of stones (1975) is annotated with the letters and symbols that Robbins perceived within their patterned, striated surfaces. A raw linen canvas from 1970 is printed allover with the word “bluer,” in obscure defiance of the yellow and violet gleam cast on the wall by its painted backside.

The most striking works, a series of five large canvases from 1968-69, teasingly integrate text and tonal abstraction. Robbins appears to have photocopied printed matter (numbers, letters, symbols) and manipulated the fragments so that the texts screech, wobble and crack. Passages are pulled and distended, rendered a Rosetta Stone of indecipherability set within a field of dappled, muted, earthy colors — code embedded in camouflage. Vaguely recognizable forms (a cello, a mask) can be detected in a few of the canvases, but the pieces are engrossing enough without such anchors. Robbins subverts the literality of the photocopy in much the way Lucas Samaras fiddled with the still-wet emulsion of Polaroid prints a few years later, transforming — but only partially — the ordinarily fixed and descriptive into something fluid and decorative.

Vincent Robbins, "200 Mile Line"

During the ‘70s, Robbins intersected with several prominent projects and personalities. He had some involvement in the L.A. County Museum’s landmark “Art and Technology” program, designing exhibition graphics, and imagery for the museum’s reflecting pools. From that work, he came to know James Lee Byars, and later collaborated with him on a number of performances, some having to do with creating visual traces of telepathic communication. He also participated in a happening of sorts, in 1973, with Byars, Robert Irwin and Chris Burden, in which each artist performed a particular action (reading the racing form, in Irwin’s case, and whirling a guitar wire, in Robbins’) for precisely one minute.

The Cardwell Jimmerson show, described by one of the gallerists as a “microspective,” skips forward from the ‘70s to the present and includes a recent split stone sphere with a smattering of raised and incised letters, and the intriguing “Dimensional” (2009), a framed piece in which line passes continuously through multiple states -- photographed, drawn, marked on glass, and rising self-contained off the page, like wire. Thanks to this show, Robbins, who now lives in Santa Barbara, will be a name less likely to be forgotten.

-- Leah Ollman

Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, 8568 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 815-1100, through Sept. 3. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Images, from top: Vincent Robbins, "Leaf"; "200 Mile Line. From Cardwell Jimmerson