LAUSANNE, Switzerland — The crafting of unusual creations from, well, junk, has long been a hallmark of many an inventive, artistic autodidact. In the southern United States, rural artisans and tinkerers have made decorative “yard art” — assemblages of twigs, rusty mattress springs, paint cans, broomsticks and other repurposed cast-offs — a common sight across lawns, porches and gardens.
Such down-home art-makers have “recontextualized” their materials in blissful ignorance of so-called postmodernist pastiche gestures. Nevertheless, their works boast affinities with such modernist art forms as Cubist-era assemblage sculpture and Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, relationships that are equally unwitting — and delightful.
In Europe, the self-taught French artist André Robillard is one of the best-recognized practitioners of this kind of art-making, although his achievements are still not so well known in the US, even among aficionados of outsider or self-taught art. Now, the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, the world’s first and most prestigious museum dedicated to self-taught artists, is presenting a retrospective of this 83-year-old art-maker’s work. Just opened at the end of November, the exhibition will remain on view through April 19, 2015.
Robillard was born in 1931 and brought up in Loiret, one of the départements (governmental administrative territories) in north-central France, where his father was a gamekeeper on a large property. Young André would go hunting with his father, who taught him about nature and the stars. However, when the boy was about eight years old, his parents divorced; André went to live with his father, and his sister went away with their mother. Relations between the boy and his father were strained, and eventually Robillard père sent his son to what would nowadays be called a kind of special-needs school located within the psychiatric hospital at Fleury-les-Aubrais, a city in Loiret. By 1940, the hospital was serving some 1,400 patients.
After World War II, André left the hospital and joined his father, working with him on farms. He began playing the harmonica, while his father played the accordion, and his grandfather the cornet, at local dances. Music-making would become one of the younger Robillard’s lifelong passions. In 1950, after having been exempted from military service because he had been identified as “edgy,” he was committed, this time as an adult, to the psychiatric hospital at Fleury-les-Aubrais. Although attempts to place Robillard in other residential settings outside the hospital failed, eventually he was allowed to travel alone on outings, and after doing various odd jobs around the hospital, he became an employee at its wastewater treatment plant.
Eventually Robillard was given his own little house on the hospital’s grounds and, in effect, began to live independently, although, in broader terms, the hospital community has long been his home. It has nourished him in various ways, and he has benefited from the attention of its professional staff. He has storage space for the wide range of cast-off materials he collects and uses in his art-making, including plush toys given to patients that are later tossed out, pieces of wood, all sorts of plastic and metal tubes, and much more.
It was around 1964 that Robillard began putting together the works that would become his signature pieces — his guns. His earliest replicas of this kind were more simple and crude. They were made primarily of wood, with leather straps and masking tape, but they developed into complex assemblages whose forms have been inspired by real rifles and submachine guns, which Robillard studied in photographs in books or magazines.
Sarah Lombardi, the director of the Collection de l’Art Brut, organized the current exhibition. During a recent walk-through, she pointed out the special history Robillard has had with the institution, noting that, in the 1960s, Jean Dubuffet — the French modernist painter, sculptor and coiner of the term “art brut” (literally “raw art,” or that which is “unscathed by artistic culture,” as Dubuffet put it in a now-famous essay) — acquired the first two rifles the hospitalized artist had ever made. The collection of self-taught artists’ works amassed by Dubuffet and his collaborators in the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in Paris became the seed of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, which opened to the public in 1975. There, Michel Thévoz, the museum’s first director, put the rifles on prominent display.
Robillard enthusiastically exchanged letters with Dubuffet, who died in 1985. The autodidact appreciated the attention he received from the renowned, mainstream modern artist, who recognized his creations as art and, to Robillard’s pleasure, himself as an artist. Lombardi said, “Starting in the late 1970s, Thévoz also began corresponding with Robillard, who routinely sent the museum his works in exchange for payments in the form of a wristwatch or other bartered items. Over the years, the museum assembled a considerable Robillard collection. The current show is culled entirely from these holdings.”
Thematically, the exhibition divides Robillard’s creations into several categories, including animals, guns, warfare and outer space. (The catalog that accompanies the exhibition also looks at the artist’s interest in sports.) There is, for example, “Appolo [sic] 13 Armstrong” (1981), the artist’s mixed-media rendering of the spacecraft built for the seventh manned mission in the United States’ Apollo program, which in 1970 was supposed to make a lunar landing but instead turned into a near-disaster. (Its story later became fodder for a movie starring Tom Hanks.) This artwork serves up an interesting bit of confusion, for Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, was not a member of the Apollo 13’s crew. Robillard evokes the epitome of the high technology of that time, the all-powerful, space-traversing rocket, with a salad of chopped and painted PVC pipes, flexible plastic tubing, painted light bulbs resembling a vehicle’s headlights or bloodshot eyes, and a metal plate that looks like a hubcap or a pie pan, all piled high on the platter of a bicycle wheel perched on the base of an old office swivel chair.
Similarly, his “Untitled” (1980) is a military tank composed of old metal cans, slices of plastic tubes, corrugated cardboard, adhesive tape and, crowning the whole heap and evoking the hatch of a real armored personnel carrier, an old toilet seat and its hinged lid, propped open. Robillard has always been interested in the news of the day, and in the past paid attention to the arms race and the space race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. It’s hard to imagine that, when he made works like these, symbolically, he was not aiming his own critical fire at the megalomaniacal Cold War era politicians and generals who were whipping up such costly, mine-is-bigger-than-yours competitions.
Robillard’s drawings in ink and colored pencil on paper depict spacecraft, missiles, soldiers, military leaders and astronauts, all neatly labeled with their names, weights, speeds or countries of origin. Equally encyclopedic is his collection of animal figures carved or cut out of wood and mounted on simple bases. His menagerie includes snakes, birds, deer, squirrels, elephants and monkeys. But it is in his guns that his ingenuity shines.
Robillard’s attention to detail is sharp: typewriter-ribbon spools; empty plastic gun-shell casings; sardine cans; a dried-out felt-tip marker; light bulbs; colored tapes; and an endless supply of metal and plastic parts from the carcasses of a legion of dead electric appliances come together to give form to these peculiar creations. Lombardi believes Robillard’s apparent interest in guns is rooted in his childhood hunting expeditions with his father, and that much of his art is inspired by or evokes themes that are linked to the artist’s earliest years.
However playful or clever such concoctions may appear, there is something deliciously subversive or transgressive about them, too. That so much innocent junk could come together to depict objects whose real-life purposes are so sinister provokes a frisson of discomfort, even as the technical tour de force that each one offers is hard not to applaud.
Lombardi asked me, “Do you think a commercial gallery in the United States would or could ever feel comfortable showing works like these?” She was hinting, of course, at the fact that guns are so visible — but also so unsettling and controversial — a part of contemporary American life. I told her that I thought maybe a gallery in Los Angeles with a blasé, transgression-is-cool attitude and eye for what’s edgy might consider showing such work, especially against the current backdrop of trigger-happy cops and officially sanctioned torture programs, which have accentuated, as if anyone in the U.S. needed a reminder, just how violent and violence-loving American society and culture have become.
Robillard has said that he began drawing Soviet-era Sputnik spacecraft as soon as they appeared in the news, that he has long been fascinated by outer space, and that if there is one aspect of the physical world that is important to him, it is the sky. In an interview transcribed in the exhibition’s catalog, he says, “I often stare up at the stars and I also look at meteorites and shooting stars.” He recalls, “[O]nce I dreamed I was on the planet Mars […]. There was a Martian who had taken me there, he had found a contraption, he had whisked me off in his vehicle, in his spacecraft. And then people started asking where Mr. Robillard could be, they were looking for me everywhere.”
At least for several more months, they will find him — or at least the curiously compelling images and objects he has crafted — here in this entertaining and soulful exhibition, in lovingly assembled piles of junk and impulsive-obsessive pictures, which together constitute a portrait of one man’s sensibility and a document of his reaction to the world as he has known it.
André Robillard continues at the Collection de l’Art Brut (11, Avenue des Bergières, Lausanne, Switzerland) through April 19, 2015.
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