The Insides of a Thought or Emotion: An Interview with Colette Robbins

I met artist Colette Robbins in 1995 and recently had the opportunity to interview her for X. about some of the visual, psychological, and scientific themes she explores in her work. Robbins lives and works in Queens, New York. She attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and received her MFA from Parsons, The New School for Design. She is represented by 101/Exhibit in Los Angeles and teaches at Hofstra University.

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Hippocampus, Graphite Painting on Paper, 2013

I’ve seen you refer to your pieces as “Rorschachs,” after the psychological test, but they also evoke body parts like pelvises, nipples, and anuses. It feels very Freudian. Can you talk a bit about this tension between the bodily and the psychological?

I love the Rorschach test as a format because its reference to mammalian symmetry makes our meaning-making brains start to see faces or demons. I love that adding a texture from water or a cave inside of the Rorschach format makes the viewer think of imagery from the body. I think our ideas are so linked to our psychological states, that I am happy to hear that translates in the work.

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Parietal Lobe, Graphite Painting on Paper, 2014

Your pieces have titles like “Hypothalamus” and “Basal Ganglia.” The texture of your work references geological forms and there is also a sense of artifact, of something being passed on or inherited. I recently read an article about new discoveries in epigenetics, that psychological traumas or resiliencies actually impact our DNA and are passed down to future generations, and it immediately made me think of your work. I am wondering if this, or any neurological research informs your work.

I think that the new discoveries in neuroscience like this one really help psychologists get better and better at helping people determine the roots of their anxiety and depression whether they are physiological or habitual. Also these discoveries help debunk much of the mythology we have built up around mental illness as a culture. I hope that my work helps open up a conversation about mental illness through the discussion of the Rorschach test, since that test has become an icon of psychology.

That is interesting that you see them as an artifact and then you think of genetic information being passed on from generation to generation. I think that our emotional states can be like very nuanced landscapes with cracks and crevices and with rough and smooth patches that very directly can influence those around us. I personally think of my pieces like the insides of a thought or emotion. Even though emotions or being emotional can be stigmatized as being bad, we are all made up of so many emotions and our interactions with the world are based on our emotions and emotional states.

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Basal Ganglia, Watercolor on Paper, 2015

I’ve known you for 20 years and I’ve followed your work. Your background is in painting, and then a few years ago you started working in graphite, and have recently started using watercolor and incorporating color again.  You also co-curated an exhibition that discussed uses of color among New York-based vs. LA-based artists. Can you talk a bit about this transition, why you went more monochromatic and then back to color?

I decided to go with an achromatic palette because color no longer became an important part of what I was trying to communicate. I wanted the focus to be on the values and textures, so removing color was a way to put the viewer in direct contact with what I was trying to say. However, I am always changing, and now I want to incorporate colors to create a different atmosphere in the mood of my work. The show I co-curated about LA-based artists using colors vs. NYC artists’ use of no colors was a show that allowed me to playfully observe why people living in different locations use color differently in general.

You teach painting at Hofstra University and have also done some consulting for emerging artists. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists or art historians who may be reading this?

For any career in the arts, in order to thrive, you need a community that supports you. Sometimes you have to build that community from scratch, one person at a time.

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