Briefly describe the work that you do.
I create and imagine worlds that are fluid, changing, morphing, and emerging. While the paintings draw from natural phenomena and micro to macro relationships, the work also pulls from the diversity and range within molecular, biological, marine, and celestial systems. I see these systems as a stepping off point that drives the process of painting. Our life experience is layered with complex systems that reach through tiny cells, flowering botanicals, and distant galaxies. I blend, mix, and juxtapose hybrid flora and fauna inside a space that simultaneously evokes the deep sea and the cosmos. I’m interested in bringing together microscopic and telescopic viewpoints. Quantum particles have their own set of guiding principles, such as in atoms, electrons and protons cannot touch each other. It’s nearly impossible to observe this happening with the naked eye. In a similar way, black holes are guided by their own set of rules and principles. No one has actually seen a black hole but there’s evidence to suggest their existence. The death of a star is the beginning of a black hole; it’s a remnant of a supernova’s explosion.
At what point in your life did you decide to become an artist?
I’ve always thought of myself as an artist and I don’t really think it was a choice. It was something that I had to do. I became very serious about making paintings in high school and have created work ever since. I’m deeply compelled to make things. I don’t recall one magical moment or any particular event that motivated me.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
Growing up in the Midwest, I signed my class notes as Robin Snake in purple and pink pens. I wanted a pet snake really bad and I relentlessly begged my mother for years to let me have one. I drew the S in snake as bubble letter usually with several snake tongues coming out. I wasn’t able to convince my mother to house a pet snake but eventually she let me have an aquarium. Nature and making things has always been a part of my life and something I have felt compelled to do. My creative work has sourced the biological for almost 15 years. In art school, I learned to draw through observation of still life and the figure. My first series of work in college was based on the human figure. I drew veins, cells, and other systems inside and around the figure. During this time, I also remember creating a painting based on the organelles in a plant cell with tiny mitochondria all over the place. As an art student my interest in nature and obsessive mark making was present. Over time I realized that I was more interested in interior space so the outline of the figure disappeared from my work. As I move into each new series of work, I often organize micro/macro systems in different ways.
What types of conceptual concerns are present in your work? How do those relate to the specific process(es) or media you use?
My current series “Fieldnotes” is a fantastical natural history that ranges from the micro to macro. “Fieldnotes” is a reference to the scientific practice of observing variables, taking notes, and making lists. These notations can be seen as a journal of evolving ideas and I use this system as a way to negotiate between abstraction and representation. Recorded daily on scientific expeditions and adventures, Fieldnotes often include information about an infinite amount of variables such as color, shape, movement, pattern, location, or type of specimen. Oftentimes, the notes are reconfigured for research reports and presentations post-adventure. I view this reconfiguring as similar to my technique of pulling together the micro and the macro into one form. For each composition, rather than one specific specimen, there is a multiplicity or blend of many figures. In this way, my paintings and etchings are a way to respond to the diversity in the natural world, both in and outside of our human experience. It’s important to have a balance between analytical and intuitive modes of working. My process involves visiting the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Botanical Garden, and the Adler Planetarium and sketching the various species and objects located there. I aspire to create works derived from as many species as possible and I have considered drawing every species of fish in the aquarium and every flower in the garden. I want to combine, layer, and blend all of those small ideas into hybrid compositions that range from the micro to macro. Some of the process is analytical and I’m thinking about it a lot and the other part of my process is more intuitive.
We once heard Chuck Close say he did not believe in being inspired, rather in working hard everyday. What motivates you in your studio practice?
I believe in working hard because things can happen in the studio that you might not be able to predict. I’ve created a lot of work over the last couple of years and I have about 800 works on my website. It’s important to set goals and get right to work in the studio. I did a Daily Drawing Project where I started and completed a work each day for a year. Each week a loose set of parameters were outlined for a series in regard to theme, size, or color, and then the finished pieces were published daily online. The project can be viewed as a macrocosm all at once, as one might imagine, within a sequence of weekly groups, and closer still, the individual pieces for each day. See more of the project here:http://reneerobbins.com/dailydrawings.html In addition to these small daily drawings, I was also creating larger works on canvas and panel at the same time. The act of creating at this pace really changed my entire studio practice and led me to new avenues. The small works feed the larger works, which in turn feed the silkscreen and etching prints. I started the Daily Drawing Project because I was unhappy with the work that I was creating so I decided to do something about it. I have a faith in creating work and making lots of things. I believe in setting high goals.
What artists living or non-living influence your work?
Well there are a lot of inspirations, and at the moment those include Dr. Seuss, Hieronymus Bosch, Ernest Haeckel, Lee Bontecou, and Inka Essenhigh. Dr. Seuss creates a whimsical world that is entirely his own. The creatures, plants, their names, and the sense of adventure all play into his world. Bosch, a 15th Dutch painter, has always been fascinating to me. One of his triptychs, the garden of Earthly Delights, organizes space with concepts of Heaven and Hell. My work draws from the metaphors in spatial organizations. However, my work is more about binary concepts like above/below, inside/outside, interior/exteriority, natural/synthetic, attraction/repulsion, beauty/danger. Ernest Haeckel, a 19th German biologist, naturalist, and artist, cataloged over 5,000 species of radiolaria during his lifetime. His attention to detail and the amount of work he created during his lifetime is mind-boggling. I aspire to document or incorporate a similar number of specimens into my work during my lifetime. Lee Bontecou’s work has meticulous detail and the quasi-spaceships and voids are completely her own. Her work transports the viewer to another place. It’s something that you can’t quite put your finger on. I’m deeply influenced by Inka Essenhigh’s flat use of space and the color in her work. She constructs, twists, and shapes a rich and complex abstract space.
When you are not making art what types of activities and interests do you engage in?
I really enjoy hiking, biking, and spending time outdoors in nature preserves, national parks and beaches. My husband and I are attempting to visit all the National Parks in our lifetime. So far we have visited Mammoth Cave, Rocky Mountains, Wind Cave, Badlands, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Congaree, Smokey Mountains, and Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. It doesn’t count if we’ve been to the park before we met so it’s something that we do together. Additionally, I read a great deal about science, natural history, and new discoveries in science. While I’m in the city I like to spend a lot of time at the aquarium, natural history museum, the science museum, conservatories, and gardens. I also enjoy cooking and seeing live music as my husband Jim is a musician and has a few side projects. One of my favorite activities is attending art exhibitions and I spend a lot of time going to see art. I really enjoy seeing and experiencing art as it feeds my artistic practice.
Renee Robbins works as a visual artist in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. She has a BFA from the University of Kentucky and an MFA from Michigan State University. Most recently she exhibited at Firecat Projects, La Luz de Jesus Gallery, Ann Tower Gallery, and the Union League Club. Her other selected exhibitions include the Alden B Dow Museum of Science and Art, South Bend Art Museum, Alexandria Museum, and the Kresge Art Museum. The Chicago Gallery News featured her work as a ‘Young Chicago Artist’ to watch in the May 2013 issue. A diatom taxonomist classified some of the forms in her paintings in an artist feature in the US Diatoms database at the University of Colorado.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.