“You don’t choose art; you do it because you have to,” declares Robin Tewes, repeating the advice she gives her art students. Whenever I hear that sentiment I get nervous; could I have done something else or would all roads have led to the studio? In Robin’s case the answer seems clear; the paintings in her studio (which include a portrait of well-known performance artist Carollee Schneeman), the works from other established artists hanging throughout her apartment, and the gorilla mask tucked onto a shelf, demonstrate her long time commitment to New York and the art community here. And to her habit of saying exactly what she thinks.
Robin paints in a flat, representational style that is reminiscent of Magritte. In an older work, Pink on Pink, a pink bedroom that is empty except for a woman’s handbag on the bed, Robin scratched text into the paint which included pronouncements by Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich (who made a series of white on white paintings) interspersed with the more mundane concerns of every day life. The painting suggests that abstraction based upon revolutionary theory is all very well and everything, but what about the real world of sex, money, and embarrassing personal problems?
In Abstract Painting I, Robin makes light of the serious, male-dominated tradition of Abstract Expressionism and its offspring. “I grew up admiring those guys, but now…I want some content. The form is just a bucket for me to pour my ideas into.” She looks at a painting of a graffiti covered wall and a trash can “or the waste paper basket in which I can throw my crumpled up pieces of thoughts.” Those thoughts meander between sharp critiques of New York and art world society, to the more personal experiences of relationships, motherhood, and loss. Like a seasoned New Yorker, the paintings have a tough, slick, and well put together exterior, which belie the neurosis and struggles contained within. At their most successful, the paintings manage to be direct, witty, and tenderly revealing.
In recent years she has incorporated glitter, neon and iridescent paints into the compositions. “It is playful, for the joy of it; the opposite of what Malevich would ever approve of!” This attitude is particularly clear in a recent series that mourns the passing of Robin’s mother. The paintings aren’t without sadness, but they also let loose and celebrate her mother’s life, as she gradually fades into a world of bright and fragmented abstraction; a world that is aggressively flat and hard to absorb.
What makes Robin’s paintings particularly strong is her use of text that is both slyly observant and painfully honest. The picture of the waste paper basket is at first glance, merely empty and melancholy, but slowly the text reveals itself. The graffiti reads: “All I want is my equal and then some. I want an adult unconditional love.” Into the garden wall the artist has scratched: “Tell me something I don’t know, Give me something I don’t have,” a demand that could be made of a partner or of a work of art. It really doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but Robin’s work suggests that those desires are very often disappointed.