Thinking, Staring & Smoking: An Interview with Robert Pokorny
Chances are a lot of you caught yourself more than once staring at the distance and thinking while smoking and/or drinking during the past year or so. And this simplest act of escapism is precisely what inspired the entire body of work which Robert Pokorny will be presenting between July 31st until Sept 18th 2021 at Johansson Projects in Oakland.
Pokorny is one of those enigmatic, hyper prolific and hard to define figures, capable of working in a variety of styles and techniques, all in the same, high quality manner. From clean line or geo form-based depictions, over cubist-like portrayals, all the way to raw illustration-like or gesture-based renditions, the LA-based artist is continuously exploring a wide range of styles and techniques. Focused on continuously perfecting all of their aspects, from the sharpness of the line, over gradients and surfaces, to the compositional approaches, he is regularly paying tribute to some of his favorite artists and their work while capturing the reality of life around him. And it's that imminent source of inspiration, which got turned upside down in the past year and half, that prompted a development of his arguably most focused body of work to date.
Exclusively portraying himself and his wife at times of quiet reflection, Pokorny managed to capture all the shades of grey we've been going through in the year of Covid, social unrest, and a range of natural disasters. Using different approaches to the deconstruction of human figure, Thinking, Staring & Smoking is "greatest hits" of sorts, capturing the selection of familiar low spirits. The concern, the apathy, the anxiety, the fear, and the helplessness are all depicted in a wonderfully delicate way with thin layers of paint allowing the linen texture to come through sitters' faces. In love with the body of work and the way it resonates with us, we got in touch with Robert and talked a bit about these works, the scenarios and emotions that triggered it, and about smoking pot.
Sasha Bogojev: The title of the show is pretty self-explanatory but what inspired you to build a show around that theme and what did you want to capture in these works?
Robert Pokorny: I found myself, as many of us did the past year in deep self – reflection. Everything we knew changed from the way we interacted, worked, learned, connected and escaped. It was as if we were all collectively thinking and staring. During this unprecedented time period I wanted to capture the repetitiveness of every day , the anxiety, the hope and our mortality. These portraits are seemingly absurd, sometimes humorous, but completely sincere.
So, how is this body of work different from some of your recent explorations?
The introspection I was experiencing led me to want to express work that was narrative. This is something that for the most part I had pulled away from doing. I was looking at my wife and dog every day, all day. I usually make nods in some form or another to us, but this was like ok we ’re the subjects. In reality we are stand-ins for what many of us were going through.
I love the consistency of the linen surfaces which adds to the atmosphere of the works. Was this something intentional or how did you go about it?
It's intentional; linen has a great deal of character. I love the inherent texture it creates with its inconsistency and imperfect marks. It has an underlying warmth and brings a feeling of nostalgia to my work.
There are some obvious nods to a few big names in your work, but can you tell us what type of works you look at while making these?
Guston’s In the Studio, Painter’s Head, Picasso’s suite of smokers and his portraits of Marie Thérèse Walter, Jim Nut t’s imaginary women paintings, R. Crumb Stoned Agin! Van Gogh’s Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, plus Hockney and David Park’s people paintings. I was looking at the way these pieces felt and what kind of energy they gave off. The seriousness, the comical and the mastery.
The color palette feels very limited too. Was this something you were focused on?
Yes, usually my work is filled with an unlimited range of color. For this body of work, I wanted to focus on a more limited palette. My thought was time is moving forward while the restrictive color palette visually represents the monotony of day after day.
The works on paper feel much looser and more gestured. How pre-planned are these and how do you approach those?
My drawings run the gamut from free wheeling to planned. I might make a few marks to denote where I want the image to be. I may flesh out a skeleton of an image and then quickly let it develop. Other times I just go for it trying not to over think it, letting the drawing dictate what it needs. Sometimes things don’t work out and destruction is better than construction and I just rip it up! What sort of elements are you interested in when exploring those? Basic formal elements; line, shape, color. I use these elements to make images appear and see if a dialogue starts to happen. Occasionally when exploring I end up going down a different path and that’s ok because I’ll set that aside as unfinished business. In fact, during the process of Thinking, Staring and Smoking I developed several bodies of work that I am continuing to expand upon.
What is your relationship with smoking and how do you feel about the way smoking was portrayed in the history of art?
Smoking in art history has always intrigued me. I knew that smoking in art initially symbolised death but decades later modernity and youth. For me there was always a sense of sophistication that was alluring or for lack of better words it just looked so cool. One of my first experiences with smoking pot was when I was sixteen. I clearly remember all the stigmata around it, from reefer madness to it being a gateway drug. None of that bothered me nor did I believe it. Early on my parents actually caught me smoking. They sat me down to explain why I shouldn’t smoke. I told them , “Until you try it, you can’t tell me what it does.” I think I got grounded after that remark, but surprisingly my mom actually considered it. I never did get her to indulge with me. Mom, if you ’re reading this the offer still stands.