Walter Robinson, Sub-Sahara, 1997. Painted wood, 39 x 32 x 4in

Walter Robinson

San Francisco

Catharine Clark Gallery

The ribbed, prehensile tail of Walter Robinson’s burnished wood sculpture Sub Sahara (1997) seems to rise out of the Precambrian murk of a typical Alexis Rockman painting, creating a threatening, fetishistic fossil record of its own. No doubt referring to a scorpion’s stinger, the tail is curiously fused to an ersatz gas pump handle whose grip is studded with spikes reminiscent of Giacometti’s Disagreeable Object (1931), a phallic wooden ovoid with points on the end. ln the manner of the Surrealists, the narrative disjunction caused by the two discordant elements creates a temporal gap where the viewer may project his or her own unconscious associations onto the piece.

Trafficking in visual puns, rebus-like puzzles, and masked metaphors, Robinson’s language is occasionally sinister, but more often playful. While Sub-Sahara’s menace is reminiscent of the medieval gynecological devices in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), Everything My Father Taught Me (1997) resembles a simple bottlecap riddle: a giant birch skeleton key dangles like an earring from an oversized lobe, suggesting that listening was the life lesson gleaned from the father.

The lapidary skill with which Robinson molds, bends, carves, and otherwise shapes his relatively pliant material (he works solely in wood) often gives the illusion of a cast or molded product or real organic matter: a vise and key look like they came straight off the assembly line, while intestines appear freshly dissected. Veins and arteries, as well as feathery cilia, are further accented with paint. ln Hollywood Spin
(1997 ) an anthropomorphic meat grinder, straight from the bar scene in Star Wars churns from its snout a distended heart doubling as a money bag, implying that the sacrifice for wealth in Tinseltown is a forfeiture of what makes us human. The bulbous, flesh-colored eyes, and the odd green toga of the figure highlight Robinson’s strategy of conflating the familiar with the exotic, upsetting the viewer’s balance to keep the portal to the dream world wide open. As Baudelaire said, the beautiful is always strange, by which he meant, of course, that it is always strangely familiar.

Robinson’s use of vise imagery in Tourniquet (1997) mirrors the woodcarving process and shares associations with Cathy de Monchaux’s trussed and fretted metal sheets, minus her Catholic, baroque theatricality. As elaborate as a banded arm tattoo, the “crown” of Tourniquet features a prickly, studded interior: a vagina dentata as disquieting as Man Ray’s Gift (1921). The multiple vises constricting the voided core suggest a psychic tension made manifest-the control ling super-ego limiting the lustful, greed id-a design whose genesis is the Inquisition, but whose application is thoroughly modern.
–Jay B. Hunt