Elliott Jamal Robbins
The Lancer, The Liberator, The Marauder
Watercolor drawing has taught Elliott Jamal Robbins how to accept the imperfections of the hand. The loose paint’s difficulty to tame over the paper, the artist realized, could be an allegory for self-acceptance, “because if you try to control, you lose the purpose of the medium,” he says. Turning his drawings into animation, however, was the real challenge. Robbins’s two hand-drawn animations and a group of watercolors—which comprise “The Lancer, The Liberator, The Marauder,” his solo presentation at Kai Matsumiya—manifest his balancing of social commentary with the personal. “How can I make work about the circumstances of living in a racist society, while it can also be just for me?” he asks.
The artist’s animations stem from a long process of drawing each gesture and later scanning them to form the moving image. Robbins first got his hands on animation while studying for his MFA in painting and sculpture at the University of Arizona. “I had to draw thousands of images, turn them into JPEGs, and transfer them to an old media player,” he describes. “I could draw, but it took me a long time to combine the two.”
The animated short 5. Choo Choo Trains (2021), which runs just under two minutes, tells the equally whimsical and transgressive story of two men who delve into a dream state of bodily experiments. They dangle their penises, smoke pot, and glide through the air. In Robbins’s view: “[The] figures are all me, but none of them are really me.” Cyclops, the one-eyed mythological figure, makes an appearance, as does a human-bodied crow. These characters, rendered with a stylized, loose chunkiness, feel energetic and immediate. The inherent sense of joy the artist derives from working with animation is evident—but Robbins’s interest is in pushing the limits of storytelling. “The narrative is deliberately transgressive because I am curious what it means to be Black and create grim narratives today,” he says. His illustration of race and Black masculinity falls into a natural rhythm where dark humor meets a flair for the absurd.
The show’s watercolors are intimate and subliminal, these being portals to Robbins’s own experiences as well as other images more broadly concerning Black representation. A blend of inspirations owes to porn, gender, and socio-political dynamics. “So much of Black representation seems to efface subjectivity,” says Robbins. The drawings defy that reality. While brimming with radiant pastel hues and bulbous forms, they hint at existentialism and self-discovery. In works like Daddy Bear Tops Young Jock and Ricky (both 2021), the body is as sexual as it is farcical; other compositions are purely text-driven. Short, punchy, and subliminal, the expressions—such as “A TEXTILE ARTIST” and “THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO SEE IN THIS WORLD THAN THIS”—are the results of arbitrary stream-of-consciousness decisions, though the exercise stems from Robbins’s broader interest in writing. “I’ve always liked writing but never felt comfortable about grammar,” he explains. “Using it in drawing or animation makes it okay and adds texture.”
Robbins created the works on display here while based out of his Tucson home, largely in isolation. Driving through Oklahoma to visit his dad, Robbins noticed exit signs along the I-40 for the likes of “Marauder Gate,” “Liberator Gate,” and “Lancer Gate.” The warships’ titles altogether formed what he today characterizes as a “visual poem.” In his memory, the original scene remains no less evocative—in his words, “There was an unexpected poetry in a shared space.” —Osman Can Yerebakan
Elliott Jamal Robbins, Johnny Gill, 2021. Watercolor on paper, 31 x 26.5 inches.