Joyce Robins: Who’s Afraid of Turquoise, Hot Pink, and Fluorescent Yellow?

1 Multi-color Circle, 14 in. (36 cm) in diameter, 2011.

Not Joyce Robins.

Robins is a fearless colorist; her ceramic-based work seems to contain within it a kaleidoscopic range of color possibilities; sober tertiaries, vibrant primaries, colors that are fragile, translucent and evanescent. Her use of color is improvisational, each choice sparking a tangential other. Her intense preoccupation with both ceramics and color places her work on the cusp between painting and sculpture. The result is a kind of sculptural Impressionism; the color is embedded in the form; each works on the other. Merging the flat, ambiguous, illusory space of painting with sculpture’s dimensionality, the planes she works on lift their illuminated surfaces off the wall. The objects are porous in many senses; light passes through and reflects off them. The surfaces are multiplied pierced and warped, the insides of the holes glazed and pigmented; the backs of the pieces are often pigmented; in a certain light, the color on the rear surface is reflected onto the wall behind it. Robins’ influences range from the Bauhaus to Minimalist sculptors and painters; their influences can be seen in her use of the grid and in the process-oriented fashion in which she employs her materials.

Robins exploits color so that it works metaphorically, symbolically, and decoratively. The work is totally abstract, but the colors release associations; these intimate, poetic surfaces could be seen as landscapes, sunsets, and representations of emotions. Her glazes are like soap films suggesting a transparent membrane enveloping the surface. The juxtaposition of colors changes their character; one red might be dense, independent and fiery, the same red in another context may seem subdued, recessive. Her colors jostle and shift, energizing the relationships between each other. The surfaces seem liquid, as if seen underwater; the colors slide in and out of focus, prismatic, shimmering, and refracting light. This aquatic appearance is embedded in Robins’ subconscious, she grew up near the Atlantic coast and her earliest memories are of the marine environment. She has always observed the way the wind shifts sand and the way the changes in light are reflected in the water. She sees these shifts and changes as processes of accumulation in both the ocean ecosystems and in her own systems of fabrication. Her work reflects the same cycles of wear, buildup, and slow, accumulative change.

Her glazing techniques are unconventional; she uses both glaze and non-glaze materials as colorants. She makes the forms in various ways with low-fire white clay without grog. In the unfired, dry greenware stage she paints on a commercial low-fire white or clear crackle glaze and fires to cone 06. When firing is finished, she sands and cleans the bisque ware and paints on washes of acrylic ink. She scrubs the surfaces until she get the desired colors. Since the firing is not too high the clay accepts the ink washes, which suffuse themselves under the crackled surface. The inks resemble washes of watercolor and are used in different densities, some watered down, some at full strength. In order to add layers of color, she sands the stained or glazed surfaces. This layering of color is an important characteristic of her work; the interaction of the colorants creates extremely rich and complex surfaces. The color seems to grow out of the clay, appearing to be embedded rather than sitting on top.

2 Topographic Rectangle #3, 11½ in. (29 cm), in length, 2014.

3 Green Cylinder, 15 in. (38 cm) in height, 2006.

Robins uses square or round formats, the size determined by the fragility of the intended forms and diameter of her kiln. The thickness of the slabs varies between 1⁄16–½ inch thick, depending on the project. As she often makes multi-partite compositions, the overall scale of her work can be quite large, an individual piece may be up to 21 inches wide and long. She tends to work at a smaller scale; at what Ken Price called “the scale of wonder.” She frequently divides the ceramic surfaces themselves into grids consisting of regular rows of small dots or pierced-through round holes. Pocks and indentations can disrupt the grid; these marks are made by a variety of tools and rounded objects pressed into the semi-moist clay. Many of her forms are relatively flat and flush to the wall, other curve considerably outward; like rounded skins. The pieces are held to the wall by concealed nails.

Topographic Rectangle, Pale Colored Circle, and Low Cone use a broad spectrum of colors in both bright and subdued tones. The pattern of holes varies from piece to piece. Pale Colored Circle and Low Cone, both circular pieces, curve off the wall and are glazed/painted on their backs. They present an interesting contrast in terms of coloration; Pale Colored Circle uses bright tones, Low Cone colors that are darker and more intense. The surfaces of both are flecked with small dots of clear glaze that seem to float over the pigmented areas. The insides of the holes are painted with undiluted inks and provide a darker contrast to the more transparent surface colors. The pierced areas are circular, following the diameters from the edges into the centers. Topographic Rectangle #3, one of her most recent pieces, has more variation in terms of color and is more pastel-like than the other two. The indentations are gridded in some places and others follow the contours of the colored areas where their arrangement becomes more irregular, more spontaneous. Multicolored Circle, a piece from 2009, though larger than these other three, has similar, pale coloration and has one small piercing that allows it to be hung. Indentations contain and separate the colors; the piece seems illuminated from within, an effect brought about by hundreds of small dots of clear glaze applied to the surface. Many of the very pastel areas are created by diluted ink that crawls under the glaze in some places, creating a strong contrast between the areas where the ink stays on the surface and the others where it seems more like a translucent tint.

4 Low Cone, up to 15½ in. (39 cm) in diameter, 2011.

5 Pale Color Circle, up to 15½ in. (39 cm) in diameter, 2011.

6 Multicolored Circle, up to 15½ in. (39 cm) in diameter, 2009.

One of Robins’ most minimal and delicate pieces is also titled Multicolored Circle and is predominantly white with a strongly crackled glaze surface with dots of various transparent and opaque colors. In places, the crackle is permeated by an extremely delicate, thinned-down infusion of ink that has crawled into the crackles in roughly circular shapes. The irregular centers of these circles are painted with an bright, undiluted, evenly pigmented ink centered around a small piercing that looks black because of the contrast. Although the piece is only 14 inches in diameter, it seems larger, more expansive, because of the unevenness of the perimeter and the delicate, expanding circles of color.

Robins began her career as a painter and started using clay in the 1970s as a way of expanding and enlarging that practice. She works slowly on a number of pieces at once; her ideas evolve and the outcomes always surprise her. The transitions within the interiors of her pieces mirror her fascination with the changes the clay goes through, from wet to semi-moist to leather hard. Ultimately, her process manifests her concept, each piece emerging from her systems of arrangement and mark making. The way she shifts between two- and three-dimensional form creates a set of patterns that Robins develops into her own visual language.

Robins’ work has been widely exhibited; in the fall of 2013, she had a mid-career exhibition at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery of the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, and also had work in the “Come Together Surviving Sandy #1” exhibit at Industry City, in Brooklyn, New York.

the author Kathleen Whitney is a Los Angeles–based writer and sculptor.

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