Peggy Robinson: Cracked

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through November 19

Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspective deceitful, and everything conceals something else. –Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Most of us no longer really see the city we live in. We walk or drive through it preoccupied with our thoughts or, if we’re consumers of the news media, apprehensive. Received thinking about the city is that the streets contain only fear and danger and that all its pleasures are locked up, accessible only to those with money. If, however, we happen to turn off the streets we’ve become incapable of seeing and cut through the Chicago Cultural Center, we’ll come across a quite different vision of our city’s streets in the paintings of Peggy Robinson. We’ll also learn to see the city again.

Robinson clearly loves Chicago, but her love is neither blind nor idealistic. She sees all its flaws and paints them with an affectionate acceptance and honesty. In fact, these paintings celebrate what the critics of city life fear most: its uncontrollable chaos. British writer Elizabeth Wilson, in The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women, has described this chaos well: she believes that recent aesthetic theory embraces rather than fears “the indifference, the transience, the confusion and the profusion, the ugly, the trivial, the eccentric and the strange.”

There is nothing photographic about Robinson’s approach, and yet her city scenes seem more real than photographs. Their remarkable reality comes from Robinson’s imaginative use of perspective, scale, color, and detail–though it’s rarely possible to pin down the precise location, one seems to recognize a particular street corner, even an alley. Comments in the exhibition guest book testify over and over again to the experience of having been in these places, having seen them.

Robinson’s creative play with traditional perspective goes some way toward explaining the sensation of being there. Her viewpoint could be described as a walking perspective or a memory perspective. In traditional Western approaches to perspective using a single vanishing point, from the camera obscura to the standard camera lens, the viewer sees the world as if her head were in a clamp while looking through a window. Robinson’s perspective places us on the street, face to face with the people, almost as if we were seeing the scene through a fish-eye lens. We see the street at our feet, the sky above, whatever may be in the distance and around the corners both right and left. At the same time we’re slightly above the scene, as if reconstructing our walk from memory.

In Cygnus (Duks) I feel I’m at the corner of Kimball and Fullerton observing a strange drama involving dead ducks, a duck/angel, and oblivious human passersby in front of Duks fast-food restaurant. In Sparkey’s I’m face to face with a man in a uniform (Salvation Army?) collecting money in the center of the street, but see just as clearly the red-headed woman holding a cigarette to her mouth on the right sidewalk, the cracks in the street at my feet, the 24-hour snack shop of the title opposite, the pigeons on the left, and Wieboldt’s down the block. This is the all-inclusive perspective of the city wanderer. However, in White the viewer is high above the scene looking down on a cemetery, an expanse of green grass covered with white gravestones and, in the center, an abandoned white automobile with its hood up and doors open. I have the sensation I’m observing this scene from a window on the el.

All of Robinson’s paintings are oil on panel. And all are small in scale, giving them an intimate quality, as if the street corner were someone’s home or some other valued possession. They do vary in size, however, with dimensions as small as about 9 inches and as large as 36. The size of the works has been determined by the old frames the artist found for them–like her images, found while wandering the streets. In fact, delight in city strolling informs every aspect of these works: Robinson seems a flaneur of 1990s Chicago. Elizabeth Wilson describes the 19th-century Parisian flaneur as a detached observer. “He caught the fleeting, fragmentary quality of modern urban life, and, as a rootless outsider, he also identified with all the marginals that urban society produced.”

The detached observer capturing the fragmentary is particularly evident in Robinson’s Seven-Eleven. The viewpoint is from the street opposite a 7-Eleven store at dusk, which is rendered in a detailed, painterly fashion, including its signs and the lights inside. But the action is taking place in the parking lot. A woman is lying on her back on the hood of a car parked by the store windows; two men are engaged in a mysterious fight, one tying the other with a rope; a dog has its head in an overturned garbage container; one man is leaning on a pay phone while another nearby is sitting and smoking on the low metal fence between the parking lot and the sidewalk. Each character is immersed in his own private world, and the action takes place amid strewn garbage under a polluted multicolored night sky. Angela Carter once wrote, describing New York City: “The skies were of strange, bright artificial colours–acid yellow, a certain bitter orange that looked as if it would taste of metal, a dreadful, sharp, pale mineral green.” Robinson–a master painter of city skies, particularly the night sky–appears to delight in the skies that disturb Carter.

Robinson’s vision cannot be wholly explained by the pictorial means she employs–which she certainly has mastered. But it’s her attitude toward her subject that stimulates our consciousness and forces us to see. If, as I believe, Robinson’s strongest works are the paintings of night–Alley, Tattoo, Pot-o-Gold, Seven-Eleven, and Free Dry, among others–then we have to ask, why is this woman so at home in alleys and backstreets at night? Again, Wilson’s The Sphinx in the City proves useful. Unlike much feminist writing that is hostile to the city and restricts itself to issues of safety, welfare, and protection, this book speaks out in favor of urban life for women. “It is necessary…to insist on women’s right to the carnival, intensity and even risks of the city. Surely it is possible to be both pro-cities and pro-women, to hold in balance an awareness of both the pleasures and the dangers that the city offers women, and to judge that in the end, urban life, however fraught with difficulty, has emancipated women more than rural life or suburban domesticity.”

Robinson seems to delight in the urban carnival, and in fact to denigrate “safer” environments. Consider a group of five very small paintings separated from the main body of the exhibition, the artist’s brief comment on “rural life and suburban domesticity.” In contrast to the excitement of the cityscapes, these are bleak and disturbing. In two of the paintings, Airplane and Airplane II, a naked man is playing with his naked child, flying it round by one leg and one arm while standing in a vast, empty green field. Airplane contains in addition only a red barn, Airplane II a farm silo in the distance. Three other paintings show family scenes at the beach. In Three Boys one of the boys is engaged in burying a second up to his neck in sand, while the third looks on. Two boys play on a raft in the middle of a lake in Raft (Mark). And in Beach Ball a small girl in a bathing suit and cap is lying on her stomach over the top of a huge ball in a desolate expanse of sand. The darkness, emptiness, and violence in these scenes of family life are entirely missing from the tumultuous city scenes.

Of course, anyone attuned only to the inhumanity of city life and enamored of the supposed peace and calm of the countryside might well have a different view. The person who wrote the wall text for this exhibit, for example, remarks: “In many of Robinson’s paintings, the sprawling urban wasteland dwarfs the figures when they are present. However, in one series of paintings, the figure is featured more prominently and in pastoral settings.” To me Robinson doesn’t seem at all at home in these “pastoral settings.” She is far more at ease in the night alley of Free Dry, with its Dumpsters, fire escapes, man walking toward us, and figure above in a lighted window. At the far end of the alley, the lights from a laundromat and the sign “Free Dry” throw the shadow of the el onto the ground. A train passes overhead. An apparition in the sky, maybe a cloud in the moonlight or a soaring spirit, is a reminder of the liberation of anonymity. For as Wilson notes, “The city is the zone of individual freedom. There, the ties of family and kinship may be loosened and avenues of escape may open up.”