Charles Robb

Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
2 September – 8 October 2005

It is not very often that a title incorporates an exhibition’s themes as well as did ‘Crop’ by Charles Robb at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA). Robb used Crop to pile on the metaphors for a show that consisted of just three white sculptures randomly dispersed over a sparse ‘field’ in the space. Two of the sculptures were portrait busts and a third was a torso fragment and bust. In metaphoric terms, the bust-forms were ‘cropped’ human figures, as well as being outcrops of the sculptural tradition. It was then an easy passage to the idea that the sculptures themselves were the crop, the product of an artistic tradition. Significantly, the statues were not ideal versions of the human form; on the contrary, they were positively malignant, but they were still a crop. And, as the figures sprang from the gallery floor as if organically attached to it, another powerful metaphor resonated—of a crop growing from an (art) field.

Robb’s sculptures seemed to be the by-product of a failed experiment in genetic modification, for the overriding message in the show was that of decay and ruination. In the Western tradition, the human form has served as a paragon of artistic and cultural power, but Robb’s human fragments were torn out of this ideal and were scattered over the floor like stillborn mutants. The desire to sculpt the perfect human form was derived from the classical era (including the Roman bust portrait), but Robb is far more interested in the romantic and expressive elaboration of the sculptural tradition. This leads to another subset in Robb’s metaphorical schema, for his pieces dealt with the struggle between the classical and the romantic, Apollo and Dionysus, reason and emotion.

The first bust, Extension, was straight out of the XA Messerschmidt handbook. Messerschmidt, an eighteenth century romantic sculptor, produced a range of self portrait busts that displayed extreme facial expressions and recorded his descent into madness. Along similar lines, Robb’s works are self-portraits, but the message is not about solipsistic explorations of self as much as it is about the intersections between sculpture’s legacy and its place in contemporary art. The frozen facial gesture of the figure in Extension expressed a moment of personal anguish, a state of mind given emphasis by the lolling tongue that protruded from the mouth. This theme was intensified in the next bust, Protrusion II, where some kind of egg/stone/ball (a la Bataille?) extended from the mouth and two stoppers were plugged into the nostrils. Robb may have been commenting on the malaise of the creative instinct, a point that was underscored in the strangest piece of all called Intake. It rested against the wall at the rear of the exhibition, and only when up close up did one recognise it as a torso fragment that had been turned upside down. The head of the sculpture (with closed eyes and expression caught in some deep and personal calamity) rested on the ground while the top of the piece had upended genitals that sagged back over the torso. This bizarre and creepy disposition of the human body amplified the general mood of the show to a fine pitch, for it suggested that traditional sculpture has an uncomfortable, disquieting and uncanny presence in today’s art climate.

Set in the crepuscular light of the IMA the show resembled a deserted archaeological site, and Robb seemed to assert that traditional sculpture only survives as a forlorn and emasculated discipline that is lost amongst the ruins of its own traditions. In addition, the figures seemed to have been sacrificed to the power of the art institution, and each of the pained faces allegorised the demise of traditional sculpture in a global art market dominated by art institutions and New Media formats. Many people now visit art museums to see the museum first and the art as an afterthought. That is, after they have viewed corporate advertising hoardings and the donors’ honour board.

Robb’s sculptures present a disquieting scene of the human spirit and its silent suffering. In an era of art ‘brands’ and global biennale monoliths, I suppose some working traditions get damaged in the crossfire. Robb responds to this dilemma in an ambivalent way. For in his reaction to it he generates an insecure exercise that makes a series of dramatic counterpoints—as metaphoric profusion meets self-abnegation, and expressive and creative power meets corruption and a sense of impending doom. Robb’s offspring might be maimed, but he still clearly believes they have a future.