The expectation, upon visiting an exhibition of work by an artist in any medium, is that one will recognize a signature visual style, that it will be evident that all the work was produced by a single hand. But this isn’t necessarily true, and it definitely is not the case when visiting Rita Robillard: Time and Place at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.
Ecology, fauna, and place are obviously themes in many pieces, as is the use of layered imagery. But it isn’t obvious that a screenprint and oil in the lobby featuring lush flora along the bottom and framed by the muted whites and blues of the mountains above and behind was made by the same artist who created Mutant Vegetation. This piece features strange, amoeba-like circles and a splatter of pink on one side floating in a sea of a dark, almost angry blue.
And neither piece is clearly the work of the same artist who conceived Lookout/Outlook, a series of photographs depicting sunrises and sunsets that are themselves painted by the terrifying light of forest fires.
These images taken from a fire lookout in Idaho, which sprawl around the far end of the museum’s Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery, are framed by a band of Tyvek screenprints with the patterns of medieval walls in shades of dark gray and faded purple. The inspiration for this part? The ruins of the chateau of the Marquis de Sade in Lacoste, France, where Robillard was in residency.
Accompanied by Robillard during a recent visit, I made this observation about the variety displayed in her lifetime of work.
“Oh, I know, yes!” she said, sounding like she’s heard this before. “I mean, it is an interesting thing. But remember, I’m 78.”
As the show’s title suggests, the 54 pieces collected by museum director John Olbrantz for the exhibition represent both the artist’s adult lifetime — nearly a half century’s work — and many places. Born in 1944, Robillard has — as a youth and an adult — lived, studied, and worked in a fantastic variety of places, including New York City, San Francisco, Hollywood, Brazil, and France.
To try placing her work within any specific artistic tradition is tricky and probably ill-advised. In the publication that accompanies the exhibition, essayist Bean Gilsdorf notes that Robillard’s early work “nodded to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art as she worked toward finding an expression of her own concerns and interests.” Many of those concerns and interests, it turns out, were shaped as deeply by her travels as by personal study.
Each locale, both urban and rural, has informed her work in a variety of media, as has her voracious appetite in a variety of topics: ecology and nature, Asian art, Indigenous history, and that realm where nature runs into the darker corners of science. One series on display here, Votives for Hanford, was the result of investigating the question, What can be done with nuclear waste? That’s where one finds, appropriately, Mutant Vegetation, and Tank Farm, which features several black tanks arranged neatly against a sunset orange background beneath grainy spackles of voodoo purple. At the top and partially out of frame, an angel looks down.
Her notes on the series have a kind of poetry to them:
“The scope and reality of the problem really lie outside human comprehension. So I chose angels as witnesses, appropriated from Giotto and Fra Angelico, to address the echo of fantasy in each possibility. The images of Annunciation seem especially appropriate for an inquiry into our enchantment with invisible powers….”
Robillard was born and raised in New York City, where she attended the prestigious private art school Cooper Union, which at the time allowed the select few who got in to attend free. Later, she received her BA and MFA degrees in fine arts from the University of California at Berkeley. Robillard taught at Washington State University in Pullman before landing in Portland, where she chaired the art department at Portland State University from 1998 to 2000 and taught graduate courses until 2013. She’s continued to work; the lobby piece mentioned above, titled Manifest Destiny Meets Walt from her series Flower Serenade: A Gift of Time, was made in 2022.
The exhibition runs through March 25, and Robillard will lead a walk-through on the final day at 1 p.m. The show is accompanied by the 96-page book Rita Robillard: Time and Place, which is the fourth collaboration between Olbrantz and Tom Booth at Oregon State University Press. It includes a Q&A-style interview with the artist conducted by Francis DeVuono and essays by Gilsdorf, Patricia Grieve Watkinson, and Linda Tesner, whose assessment of the artist I’ll include here as the final word.
“Robillard’s contemplation of time and place, with its historical underpinnings, is an ongoing inquiry in her work,” writes Tesner, the former director of the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis and Clark College. “Intensive research is part of her studio practice; she regularly investigates historical documents, photographs, and primary source accounts…. In addition to her ongoing exploration of time and place, Robillard has continued to push the boundaries of the printmaking medium, combining printmaking techniques and photographic processes into works that challenge traditional notions of what a print is.”