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Robin Eley: A Contemporary Portrait

In the gallery are five sculpted busts and nine large-scale painted portraits. The exhibition is titled Prism and accordingly, each of the portraits is painted within one of the seven colors refracted by a prism, bookended with portraits in both white and black. The poses of the nude figures are sensitive, vulnerable and contemplative. Character traits are evident: wrung knuckles, a distant gaze, a questioning hand grazes the temple, tattoos of personal purpose. Clustered in the center of the gallery are his arresting sculptures. Transparent, planar busts representing each of the five painted sitters, they are the prisms from which the exhibition draws its name.

At first glance, one could mistake his painted portraits as digital reproductions. They are highly aestheticized with Photorealist polish. This is a deliberate approach by the artist, Robin Eley to merge his conceptual and technical models. Never leaving a thing to chance, Eley intends for his audience to double-take and question whether his works are digital creations or paintings. His technical skill as a painter is remarkable. It deserves an extra in front of ordinary. However, if you ask this thoughtful artist where his strength lies, he will quickly tell you it is not in his aptitude to mirror reality stroke by stroke. Humble, gentle and considered, he says his true talent lies is his capacity “to conceive what I want to create... to bring the concept and what I visualize to reality through process. The technical execution must meet the idea.”

Originally from Australia, Eley has returned to the US partnering with gallery, 101/Exhibit. Eley first came to California to study fine arts and play college basketball. Within his Bachelor of Arts he studied psychology spurred by his natural inclination to observe people and question social behaviors. Today, Eley remains concerned with the human condition in contemporary society. He creates to ask questions.

His Prism series is a consideration of identity in the blur of virtual reality. Paramount to this investigation, the artist first creates 3D models of his sitters’ faces. He states, “[i]n my eyes, the entire process begins with the creation of the prism. Nothing can happen until this is done.” Originating his painting process by creating sculptures is a noteworthy contradiction of which the artist is aware. With painstaking consideration, he maps a low poly mesh precisely to the essential features of each sitter, a complex procedure indicative of the artist’s process-driven practice. Each bust is then 3D printed in pieces which are then meticulously sanded and polished before being reformed as the final sculpture. Concomitantly representing and functioning as a prism, the completed sculptural prisms refract light and distort the appearance of anything viewed through it.

Progressing to painting, Eley digitally captures various, angled views of his 3D models, overlaying them onto the posed reference of his sitter. From this composition, he paints his final figure. A powerful image containing both the sitter and the multiple digital portraits that distort them - sharp lines slice and intersect across the canvas dissecting each figure. Eley’s nudes are abstracted by opaquely painted shards that mask human detail. The image of each delicate figure is denaturalized and fractured – they are fragmented by their own digital image. It is here the concept of colliding the virtual with the real achieves fruition. His technical execution has meshed with the concept. This is where Eley releases breath... His audience can now see his paintings are the refraction of the individual sitter through each sculpted prism.

Eley is a perfectionist and resides in process and problem solving. His methodology consists of transforming the original image through a series of mediums from photography, to digital, to sculpture, and later to painting. This in itself is an exercise of image alteration and re-articulation. The artist is acutely aware of balancing contradictions and thematically and materially examining identity representation.

Like the concept Eley is exploring, his paintings don’t technically sit comfortably within one genre. They do not subscribe to traditional figurative representation or geometric abstraction but combine these two dichotomies. This unreconciled path that Eley explores parallels his investigations into human relationships with the virtual, in particular with social media. While he presents a visual dialectic between obscured and present, digital interference and the human, and the abstract and figurative, he examines the effect of creating a mediated version of ourselves online.

We exist in the tangible real world and concurrently online through various social media. We play, work and communicate through these platforms. The contemporized mantra, “I tweet, therefore I am” rings true. We sculpt our own online personas. Through careful editing, we whittle our virtual identity until we are satisfied we have achieved best effect.

But what results?

Philosopher, Michel Foucault theorized on the psychological impact of constant and conscious visibility – the power of ‘the gaze’. Wherein, we are intensely aware of our audience’s gaze and we respond by performing our identities seeking applause and recognition. After all, desiring peer recognition and affirmation is innate in us all. As a consequence of performing our identities online, signs and nuances only experienced through real life interaction, along with our traits of fallibility, are vigilantly edited. We present a highly manicured and mediated version of ourselves. Eley’s 3D printed sculptural busts of his painted sitters amplify this. They contain the unique facial features that define the individual but they are transparent, low resolution and without substance. Eley’s medium is the message.

Social media has become more than a vehicle for sharing information. It is a way to stage a spectrum of identities, each purposely tailored in a created heterotopia. It is this vicissitude of defining and redefining our virtual selves with our human self that Eley is concerned. His sensitive portraits are fragmented and partially obscured by the digital creation of our very selves. A clash of the real with the digital. His hyper-realist painting style sits intelligently just outside the bounds of traditional portraiture. He simultaneously represents both entities, while revealing a potentially psychologically disjointing effect. The repercussion is a prismatic self.

The simulacrum Jean Baudrillard had philosophized - life as art - is in existence, whereby “reality itself is hyper-realistic... the whole of everyday political, social, historical, economic reality is incorporated into the simulative dimension of hyperrealism; we already live out the ‘aesthetic’ hallucination of reality.” This art we live is a vocabulary of images and sharing information that bolsters how we want to be perceived. The interface is the form. This hyper-real simulation defines our contemporary lives. Copies of our selves have relationships with copies of other people. Our emotional states are surmised in one status update, never portraying their true complexity. Eley’s inquiry questions how this affects us long term as individuals, communities and society. Where does authenticity reside in our distilled and multiplied selves? With plural existences and constant management of our now prism personalities, how do we achieve balance?

It is crucial to note Eley is not a bleak doomsayer, paranoid of the future. He acknowledges the necessity of this additional reality in everyday life, in all its paradoxes, and indeed he draws upon it and utilizes it in his creative process. As all of us, he is just learning to traverse this ambiguous landscape.

Eley’s lifelong interest in social psychology now has an additional virtual realm to investigate. Like all innovative artists he places himself within the contradictions through which he wades. This is why there is a resounding authenticity about Eley’s artworks. He does not see himself as a voyeur looking in on life’s paradoxes, but rather he paints immersed within them - within the prism - experiencing, empathizing and questioning in order to create.

Venita Poblocki


Image: Robin Eley, Millhouse Refracted (magenta) (C)

Robin Eley: A Contemporary Portrait
2014