Robin Hextrum Artist Interview
How did you develop your deep reverence for the natural world?
I grew up in a small coastal town called Stinson Beach where I was immersed in nature. Stinson Beach is famous for its great white sharks, ticks, mountain lions, and rattle snakes. I learned how to surf in Stinson and was an active trail runner, so I always had a sense that I was part of the food chain. I saw nature as beautiful, powerful, and humbling. In addition to that, I have been variations of vegetarian or vegan for large portions of my life because I have always felt a connection to animals and I see them as sentient beings who deserve better treatment. I have a deep respect for the natural world and a soft spot for animal welfare.
When did you start feeling like you needed to make this work specifically?
This work has been an evolution from a variety of modes of exploration. About seven years ago I began pulling imagery from traditional paintings and combining it with abstract marks. I started this series in response to the heightened sense of chaos building up to the 2016 election. Working from this notion of pulling out traditional iconic imagery and collaging it in new ways, I began to combine landscapes and still lifes. Then, it occurred to me I could combine icebergs with still life objects and that this could offer a really beautiful and haunting image. During my graduate studies I did many paintings of water and contemporary seascapes. Painting icebergs has felt very natural since I spent years teaching myself how to paint water during grad school.
Your work uses iconography and symbols of wealth and power often derived from Dutch still life masterpieces. Specifically can you speak about the particular species of plants and fruits included that allude to these concepts and why you choose them?
The most iconic plant in my paintings is the tulip. The tulip bulb originated in Turkey, and sparked a craze called “Tulip Mania” in the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age in the 1600s. At its height, a tulip bulb could sell for more than a house. The most expensive tulips were the “flamed” tulips that have stripes of different colors. I often represent these particularly valuable tulips in my work. This speculative tulip bubble eventually crashed and is often referenced as a cautionary tale about any new market craze. We still find ourselves chasing tulips in the form of new digital gadgets that will soon be obsolete, the next hot stock, or the latest NFT (non-fungible token). Fruit like peaches and grapes also symbolized wealth and abundance in Dutch still life paintings. Grapes connect to pleasure and lust since they can be fermented into wine. Fruit and flowers in traditional still lifes also represent the transience of beauty and earthly existence. My paintings ask viewers to consider the opulence of our present moment and the ways we are contributing to the transience of our natural environment.
I often go with a gut feeling or instinct in my decision to choose different animals. I may be inspired by a certain posture or countenance in an animal or look for a certain sense of nobility. In my painting King of the Pomegranates, I liked the idea of having a regal animal like a lion next to oversized fruit to capture a sense of absurdity that this creature could feel like he is dominating the outside world. I combined the Indian Rhino with icebergs because I wanted to highlight the bizarre future of global warming where our definition of stable climate zones will collapse, and we will have many species making the most of uninhabitable situations. I also find Indian Rhinos fascinating because of all animal species they feel very prehistoric and seem to be wearing some sort of armor.
Similarly, the oversized fruit, floral elements and commodities seem to signal how we value items of consumption more than natural spaces. Can you speak to that idea?
I often incorporate oversized flowers and fruit because they reinforce that sense of extreme opulence found in the Dutch still life tradition. Their outsized presence alludes to a sense of grandiosity or things being taken to an extreme. My work also references the vanitas genre which was a 17th century still life theme that incorporated visual symbols like skulls and hour glasses in order to get viewers to contemplate their own mortality. Within this genre, flowers symbolize beauty and the transience of human life. Their short lived beauty reminds us of our brief existence on this planet. While the original intent of vanitas works was to push viewers to a more strict and pious path, my paintings will ask viewers to consider the mortality of our planet.
"INVERTS ICONIC LANDSCAPE"
In “Reflected Worlds” two opposite worlds collide in the composition. Visually it's very surrealistic, but I would love to hear more about the conceptual idea behind this piece specifically.
This piece combines a painting by Frederic Church of Niagara falls and another work of the Albert Bierstadt of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I am fascinated with the history of American landscape traditions. They are simultaneously stunning paintings, but they were also used to justify colonialization and manifest destiny. This work literally inverts that iconic American Landscape. I wanted to make something that would get the viewer to pause and reconsider our history. I also like the idea of taking something familiar and disrupting it. The surrealist tradition strove to make the familiar strange and to make the strange familiar.
What is something that people don’t usually know about your practice?
I found painting to be very difficult to learn and it did not come naturally to me. I have spent many years intentionally cultivating my abilities. I actually love that painting is so challenging because I feel like there is always something else to learn. I’m always thinking about improving and trying to make leaps with my work both technically and conceptually. It is easy to improve when you are new to art, but after years of practice it takes a lot of dedication to try to keep finding ways to challenge yourself and get better. I really fear stagnation. During college I was a division 1 athlete on USC’s crew team. There was a saying that if you are not improving you are getting worse. I think that sports mentality has followed me in my painting. Even if they are small gains, I still feel a huge sense of accomplishment to know that I am continually learning and developing.
What are some rituals you have that assist your artmaking?
I like listening to audio books and podcasts while I paint. I find it helps calm my mind. If I don’t listen to some sort of narration then my mind will wander too much. I also try to carve out at least three hours for each painting session so I can really fall deep into a state of focus and I don’t feel like I am constantly being interrupted. I work from a home studio and often paint in my pajamas with my cat nearby. I like being able to immediately work at home because I have a complicated teaching schedule.
What do you think about when you paint? Where does your mind wander to?
I try not to let my mind wander because then I will get distracted. I try to just have basic thoughts about form, color and composition. I also try not to overthink things and to trust my instincts. When I paint I try to silence that inner critic and just let things come naturally.
What is something that you believe in deeply?
I believe that both the skill of learning how to draw and paint can be acquired, and so can creativity. Having spent ten years teaching I have witnessed so many students make enormous leaps in their technical skill and conceptual creativity. So often we think artistic talent is innate, but in fact it is something that can be learned and cultivated the same way someone can learn to play the piano.
If you could own any piece of Artwork in the world, what piece would you choose and why?
I would love any still life painting by Rachel Ruysch. She stood out as one of the few female painters who really hit it big during the height of the Dutch Golden Age. Somehow she managed to make 250 paintings while raising ten children. I’ve seen her paintings in person and they are simple marvelous. There is so much care in every facet of her work. Having looked at many Dutch Still Life paintings for inspiration, I believe she is one of the best still life painters we have ever had.