The man hailed as one of Australia’s greatest painters doesn’t own a computer, but still believes the future of art is online.
- Acclaimed Brisbane artist Bill Robinson has won the Archibald Prize twice
- The virtual exhibition offers 360-degree views of his art on display and incorporates soundscapes
- His works, described as meditations on the world, have sold for more than $800,000
The life, mind and music of Brisbane artist Bill Robinson has been revealed with the click of a mouse in the latest exhibition at the William Robinson Gallery (WRG) in Old Government House at QUT.
Robinson, 84, is the only living Australian artist with a public gallery dedicated to exhibiting his work.
Its newest show incorporates a virtual tour enabling visitors to take their own online journey through the works and sounds that inspired the artist, and even Robinson himself playing Rachmaninov and Chopin (he once wanted to be a concert pianist).
It will include audio snippets of a biography on the painter, written by Brisbane novelist Nick Earls, who is also the show’s curator.
William Robinson: By the Book draws on the author’s insights into the mind of a man who turned perspective and landscape painting on its head.
Robinson has a massive canon of work dating back to the 1950s.
But he scoffed when asked whether he liked being called one of the nation’s greatest painters.
“There are probably hundreds of us,” he said.
In 1987, Robinson was condescendingly labelled the goat farmer who won the Archibald when his whimsical Equestrian self-portrait took out the main prize.
He won the Archibald a second time in 1995 with Self-portrait with stunned mullet, perhaps better described as self-parody, something many failed to grasp at the time.
Both paintings feature in the new exhibition.
Robinson has long since turned away from the Archibald and its accompanying media circus to quietly begin his meditation on the world at his doorstep — from farm animals to his remarkable and vertiginous studies of the Scenic Rim hinterland.
His works hang in all of Australia’s major galleries and his works sell for vast sums of money, yet he remains far from a household name.
“Everything I paint is based on where I’ve lived and what I’ve noticed, so I’ve missed out on fashion,” Robinson told the ABC.
A new way of showing art
The WRG exhibition utilises Matterport, an interface much like Google street view offering a dollhouse view of the gallery and a 360-degree view of the art on show, room by room.
WRG was one of the early adopters of Matterport among Australia’s public galleries, but this show takes it much further by incorporating soundscapes and segments of biography specially recorded by Earls for the show.
Robinson said while seeing his work online was not quite as good as doing so in the flesh, it came a close second — especially at a time of coronavirus social distancing.
“Art will have to take on a new way of being shown,” Robinson said.
“The best way to look at [my paintings] is in the flesh, but this technology is the next best thing — if they can get the colours right.
WRG director Vanessa Van Ooyen commissioned Earls to write about Robinson in 2018 and the gallery published the book that grew from what was initially intended as an essay.
“I went to Nick because he shared a similar sense of humour with Bill and because he’s based in Brisbane,” Ms Van Ooyen said.
Earls’ essay very quickly became a novella. The resulting hardcover book, a beautiful object of art in its own right, is conveniently on sale in the WRG foyer.
The audiobook version has been cut into about 60 segments to guide online and in-person viewers through the exhibition.
“I wasn’t sure how that would work out,” Earls admitted.
“We had seven rooms for the exhibition, and I didn’t really know if the book had four rooms’ worth of material or 15.
“We took the text that related more to life than artworks as an opportunity to bring in other objects (photos, catalogues from exhibitions decades ago, a carving of Bill’s grandfather’s, a raincoat) … space never ended up being an issue.
“Introducing Matterport takes that a further step, by bringing people anywhere into the exhibition online, and giving them the experience of virtually walking around the rooms, zooming in on the art and objects and listening to the related content.”
‘What have you got?’
Robinson still produces works for sale. An exhibition of works for sale was supposed to open at Brisbane’s Philip Bacon Galleries last month, but has been postponed until next year because of the pandemic.
Gallery owner Philip Bacon said Robinson was much loved by the art community and by the Australian buyers who forked out serious dollars to own one of his works, but admitted he was no household name like Boyd, Nolan, Olley or Smart.
“The work isn’t flashy and he’s not flashy, so he doesn’t have the wide public recognition the others do,” Mr Bacon said.
But people across the world hold Robinson’s work in high esteem.
Mr Bacon spoke of a Hong Kong architect who recently told a visiting Queensland businessman that Australia’s greatest artist lived in Brisbane.
The businessmen, also from Brisbane, had never heard of William Robinson, but then decided he wanted one of his paintings.
Mr Bacon said Robinson works had sold for more than $800,000 at auction.
“The best-informed people know what’s involved in a Robinson painting.”
He said another client recently bought a Robinson painting sight-unseen after seeing it on the gallery’s website.
“That’s started happening for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown.”
There is no doubt Robinson’s work is better in real life. He spent decades ruminating on the elusive nature of colour and results often leap from the canvas up close.
“Colour is like music,” Robinson said.
“It exists in a space formed in our brain from vibrations.
His works are meditations on the world.
“I like people in my pictures, if possible, to see the way I’m looking at something,” Robinson said.
Humour is also a recurring element, particularly when he includes himself in the work.
“There are little private jokes in my paintings. I like to entertain myself.”