Dialogs with the Future: Robert Nelson’s Surreal Conversation
by Genie Davis
Dialogs with the Future, a brilliantly visual and clever exhibition by recently transplanted Los Angeles artist Robert Nelson, is on view at Brainworks Gallery, in the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood through April 29th. The show, curated by Kristine Schomaker, includes work that combines images from a variety of sources to tell a story about today’s world and a future that doesn’t – yet – exist.
The works, described as both hyper-real and surreal, offer a series of dichotomies or contradictions on innocence and corruption, the infinite and the finite, the past and the future, and good/evil.
Nelson uses both illustrative drawing and layered swaths of color in creating panels that dance with vibrant greens, fuchsia, orange. There is both the sensibility of a highly-refined comic-book culture full of patterns and texture, and extremely detailed and realistic images. It is this juxtaposition that makes Nelson’s work so unique, blending different sources and styles, combining a variety of images that are culled from pop culture and/or art history. Amusing and challenging, Nelson’s pieces startle and stimulate.
In Dialogs with the Future, Nelson’s bright, bold, and intense works are also highly narrative as you can see in Lullaby Before the Storm, with its blue Madonna figure cradling a small green robot. Positioned against a pop art explosion of dots on a panel that features a star shape, the image is balanced by a detailed, realistic rendering of a ginger-colored cat. The cat is staring out at the viewer, as if daring one to comprehend the image or asking the viewer to share the feline’s observations. In New World, also created from graphite, white pencil, and acrylic on panel, Nelson again returns to the “future” with an orange robot character in a Madonna-like figure’s arms. This robot has an ooze of thick yellow smoke coming from his head. And in the background, a blue but nonetheless realistic cat is peeking out, with a clearly alarmed expression on the feline face.
In Magic Machine, a green-faced Jesus figure with a salmon-colored, tattooed body is reaching out toward water bubbles, while a purple-faced Madonna, her body pink and tattooed, reclines half submerged in liquid. Her tattoos are floral on the upper half of her body, and are machine/blueprint like on the bottom. His markings show a fish, a wave, a Geisha girl. There is a transformative feeling to these images, as if the titular machine had created these combinations of body and head, a kind of refined Pictionary. In Storm Cycle, the colors have changed – a purple-faced Jesus figure, a blue-faced Madonna, but the tattoos and body colors are the same. A wave rises in front of these figures, and the shape of the panel is icon-like.
While the religious elements in these works are striking – or perhaps simply historical art imagery of a certain period – the most compelling aspect of Nelson’s clever and careful work is how thought provoking they are. What is real, what is not? What is as it was, what is as it will be? And are both past and future mutable?
Nelson’s intense mix of the hyper-realistic and the surreal always seem to pull from a range of different sources, including the viewer’s own perceptions and experience. He creates what is essentially a new world view in his work, or a new conversation that channels past and present to create a form of future.
Nelson’s questioning of the status quo, his use of disturbing and amusing images, and his ambiguous approach to his subjects all add up to a visually and intellectually fascinating exhibition – one in which the dialog with the future – and with present viewers – could last a long, long time.
Brainworks Gallery is located at 5364 Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles.