Walter Robinson: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Shotgun Review

Walter Robinson: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

By Maria Porges March 15, 2014

What are we to think about an Egyptian funerary boat powered by oars, piled improbably high with miniature, candy-colored shipping containers? San Francisco artist Walter Robinson has become well known for this kind of humorous, slightly disturbing disjuncture: a combination of conceptually and visually loaded elements, exquisitely realized and presented as a fait accompli. The title of Robinson’s solo show, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, unites a vivid group of paintings, sculpture, and unsettlingly surreal installations. Loosely translated, this Latin phrase means “Thus passes the glory of the world,” reminding us not only of the fleeting nature of our existence here on earth, but that, as Douglas Huebler once said, “Things are only things.” Despite what the ancient Egyptians believed, we can’t take them with us when we go. 

Robinson is a skilled maker, creating seamless combinations of ingenious, highly crafted parts and found materials (historically, there have been less of the latter, more of the former). This show represents a departure in that more than half of the pieces shown are two-dimensional canvases, painted in the handsomely idiosyncratic palette that has characterized his work for decades. The themes of these pictures include clowns, pets, and a variety of bucolic landscapes, based on motifs taken from paint-by-number images popular in Robinson’s childhood.

Walter Robinson. Exodus, 2014; Wood, fiberglass, taxidermy, glass, leather, sand 75 x 63 x 20 in. Courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery.  

In a spectacular series representing the four seasons, these themes are combined in ways that can only be described as somewhere between humorously dreamy and nightmarish (depending, of course, on how you feel about clowns). In Four Seasons (Winter) (2013), an Emmett Kelly look-alike in the foreground gazes pensively into the distance, while skaters skim across the ice behind him, their faces simplified to robotic dots. In the panel that represents spring, a geisha wanders across a bridge behind a different mournful red-nosed figure. 

Rather than alluding to the seasons as a one-way journey, representing the ages of man, these pictures seem more to be reminders of the cyclical passage of time. The wheel goes around, year after year, though we can witness it only so many times. The centerpiece of the show, Exodus (2014), is an amalgam of memento mori: a saddled warthog-cum-pack-mule carrying a giant (functional!) hourglass, one hoof embedded in a human skull. The exodus referred to is not only Robinson’s own imminent, lamentable departure from the Bay Area, it is the steady loss of members of the creative class who can no longer afford to live here.

Walter Robinson: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi is on view at Catharine Clark Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through March 29, 2014.

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