Robey Clark’s Main Gallery show at Quirk is filled with large-scale, colorful screen prints that are perfect for summer. His current exhibit also features wheat paste pieces on wood panels and black and white prints on panel and paper that are covered with a variety of bold textures and energetic details. Mr. Clark, who grew up in Richmond, now calls Los Angeles home. We were happy to welcome him back to the east coast for bit and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his recent work, growing up in Virginia, and how he’s succumbing to the California lifestyle.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you began your artistic pursuits.
RC: I was born in Rochester, NY and lived there until I was six. Then in Richmond until college (studying graphic design at RISD) then New York/LA/Richmond back and forth a few times. I don’t know if I started drawing particularly early, but when I did start it was pretty incessant, which is not so unusual a way for a kid to pass the time I guess. But my kindergarten art teacher met with my parents and urged them to encourage my artistic pursuits. And I’m fortunate because they did. In fact to this day, without much coaxing, my mom will speak at length about one particular drawing of a bird I did when I was 2 that, at least for her, made a strong case that I had artistic aptitude. I owe a lot to that bird because as it turns out my math and science skills were not so exciting.
Q: What took you from Richmond to Los Angeles? Is there anything that Richmond offers that LA doesn’t? Is there anything you ever miss by living on the west coast?
RC: I got into the Beach Boys when I was a little kid and the songs imparted a deep fascination with the Southern California mythos. Plus to a graphic designer it’s heaven on earth; the signage and commercial architecture out there is totally bonkers, really amazing. Sometimes it feels like urban sprawl, but then other times it feels like some kind of bizarre theme park that was converted into a city. I feel very at home there. There’s plenty to miss about Virginia; profound natural beauty, a deeply intriguing history and a contemporary culture that is bubbling over. But as unique and fascinating a place as Richmond is, I think I’m still in the honeymoon period with LA. Then again I’ve only lived there for 3 and a half years. Ask me again in another three and a half, maybe the 7-year itch will have set in.
Q: Your pieces are pretty large scale, really colorful, and full of interesting shapes and textures. How do you decide on the content of your work?
RC: For quite a while I was blocked pretty badly. I imagine that living in the information age and having content so readily available can make choosing a direction and sticking with it just a tad trickier than it had been in simpler times. Plus in college I studied graphic design, the cardinal rule of which is to let the content guide your process, so that all of your aesthetic decisions are in service of strengthening the message of your project. Some designers are less married to this ideal than others, but I try to take it to heart; every project deserves its own approach. Sometimes you start with a photograph, sometimes an illustration, sometimes it’s simply typographic, whatever best solves the problem. You can apply this discipline to fine art by letting a concept thoroughly dictate the development of a work, and some artists do so with great success. But ultimately I realized if I was going to get going I would have to suspend that ideology for my personal work. By a long process of trial and error I realized I was happiest exploring what happens when printing goes wrong; how a print can go off the rails and become unique and something more like a painting. I had an aunt who was a graphic designer and instead of wrapping paper she would send us presents wrapped in ‘make readies,’ which are essentially just pieces of paper that had been run through the press many, many times in order to clean off the rollers or make adjustments to the registration. This process creates absurdly intricate prints; the blue ink from one image overlayed with the yellow from another and the gold from a third and so on and so forth until you’re left with a pileup of completely unrelated imagery that is all smooshed together and that creates these fields of form and color built out of completely random imagery. They just absolutely blew me away. And still do. I love printmaking and making a perfect edition is thrilling, but also awfully tense. And the seconds (prints that don’t make the cut) have their own beauty that is completely unique and oftentimes transcends the standard edition. In my work I try to find that.
Q: Is there something about your work that you hope viewers will recognize or that they’ll take away from the experience of viewing your pieces?
RC: A lot of the cracks you hear about modern art refer to abstraction and I, to a certain degree, can empathize with someone who’s not into it and how it must feel from the outside looking into that world. Especially the high end of it where hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are paid for work that, at least superficially, seems haphazard or simplistic. It makes me anxious, no doubt. But it’s only reasonable that an artist who has worked with a set of materials for years or decades is bound to see something there that’s not obvious to someone who hasn’t. How boring would it be for painters if the trajectory of the visual arts just went further and further down the rabbit hole or representationalism? My sense of art history is not what it should be, but I imagine that once the camera came along, painters had a real problem to contend with; you can’t represent a tree with paint more realistically than you can with a camera. But paint has it’s own inherent beauty, and markmaking has it’s own language of form. Throw a little of them in the mix and you’ve got impressionism. Take it to the Nth degree and you’ve got abstract expressionism. I imagine anyone who spent 30 years painting could appreciate the experience of looking at your palette or the surface of a work table and being more excited by what’s going on there than what’s going on in the actual painting. The goal is to make that case for someone no matter what their relationship to the materials is.
Q: What’s next for you and your future work? Are you working on any other projects?
RC: I’m co-owner of a bookstore, Pop-Hop Books & Print, that has a screenprinting studio in back. We’ve only been open a little over a year, so I’m still working to organize the workflow and get the studio to run more efficiently. At the same time I make merchandise for the store; tote bags, stationary, T-shirts, posters for events etc. That work is never done. For instance it’s July and I’m already feeling the weight of the upcoming holiday season. So to be able to use the studio for anything personal is a huge luxury that I’m really grateful for. I have at least another show of my own work coming up next year at a boutique/gallery called Velouria in Seattle that’s run by one of my RISD classmates, but until then it’s Pop-Hop stuff all day, every day.
Q: When you aren’t working, what are your favorite things to do/places to go?
RC: Right now I’m always working. And when I’m not working I feel guilty for it. I would like to go camping and experience nature more often. My dream is to have a studio in the wilderness. Being in a big city helps to compel me to join the cultural dialogue, but ultimately there’s nothing as beautiful as the natural world.
Robey Clark’s Main Gallery show continues through August 31. Robey joins Shop Show artist, Sara Gossett and Vault artist, Molly Anne Bishop for Quirk’s summer exhibits. An artist’s reception will be held Thursday, August 1 preceding the RVA First Friday event on August 2.