Emeritus Professor | University of Edinburgh Chairman
Board of Governors | Edinburgh Printmakers
Wisdom of God
There is a print In this exhibition with a classically beautiful horse - more beautiful than any real horse, an ideal horse, more "horse-like" than the real thing - and this horse is watching a mongrel dog chase its tail. Now, maybe, this horse is Classical Art looking at Modern Art-a mongrel form composed of everything from performance art to assemblage-and Classical Art is watching Modern Art chase its tail in an endless circle. The classical horse, this ideal creature, is watching with a distanced awareness. Or, maybe the horse is Robert Rivers and he is watching us go about our day-to-day in a spiral of ever-increasing activity. Or, maybe this print is only about a horse watching a dog.
Or, maybe this print is only about a horse watching a dog. Or, maybe the print isn't about anything in the real world and is simply about a certain gradated light and a unique variety of invented marks. Whatever this print is about, it utilizes idealized classical form.
Rivers' ceramic works in this exhibition are also classically oriented works. "Back to the basics" is the theme. There is no baroque tail-chasing, no fancy-glaze shenanigans, no elaborate construction techniques to confuse the viewer or mislead and bedazzle. The gesture is a dead-on frontal presentation-an almost Egyptian presentation, like that simply painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti from the Amarna Period. With only a few exceptions, the ceramic works are mounted on simple rectangular bases.
So where's the art? If we aren't bedazzled or "baroqued," if the technique is spare and Rivers is not interested in the outer edges of technical ceramic investigation, where's the art? Well, it is just where it has always been and always will be.
Rivers told me that he was going to start referring to what he did as "static" art. In this age of movies, television, performance art, mechanized, and digitized art, he was working with passion on a "static" art. Rivers wants to make art that doesn't move. That statement is worth considering. Given the current trends, this is a contrary position: the work is intentionally "static." That would explain the lack of baroque movement in the compositions. Sculptural compositions employ form in a directed way to lead the viewer around the sculpture. A sculptural work that employs compositional devices that encourage the viewer to move around the work would not be "static." The overall effect of design in the third dimension is similar to film. The viewer moves around the form and is presented with, and entertained by, sequential views. When we watch a film, we sit still and the images move in front of us. In both cases, there is movement, and in both cases, we are entertained. In both cases, the images transmitted to the brain are sequential and delivered in a "real" time frame that we find entertaining. If there is no art present, then at least we have entertainment. Clearly, Rivers' primary aim is not entertainment. What his works do deliver is art.
The portrait bust has served a number of functions over the span of recorded history. The early Egyptians and the Romans, in particular, used the form to preserve the memory of the dead. It was also used during Roman times to extend and clarify the boundaries of the state's authority. The busts were useful in establishing continuity in both familial and governmental leadership. Over time, leaders came to power, served their terms and died. The images of those leaders were preserved in stone and served as a visual memory bank for the culture. If the Roman citizen had no actual memory of the ruler, the bust captured enough of the "spirit" of the ruler to act as a substitute for memory. Rows of portrait busts pointed out the stability of the empire. They were stabile memories preserved in stone.
They were static.
For the most part, these Roman portrait busts were frontal presentations with little or no body gestures. Rivers' ceramic heads, like those Roman busts, are meant to inspire memory from any viewpoint. If the memory isn't forthcoming, the heads capture unique personalities and, in the highest artistic tradition, they supply a substitute "spirit." Rather than leading us around a work and entertaining us with a variety of views and changing forms, the works seem to lead us quickly to either the memory or the replacement "spirit." Seen as a group, they imply continuity and then represent diversity within that continuity. The drawings and marks on the surfaces of the ceramic heads are echoed in Rivers' drawings and prints. The marks are all made by the same hand, and the sculptural works, the prints, and the drawings are thus harmonious. We are shown quality images from an invented world, and then we are surrounded by spirits from that world. The effect is near total immersion. Rivers' world becomes our world for a while, and we participate in art. And this is all accomplished with a "static" form. It is all really a step forward to past form.
It is said that a placard is sometimes found in meditation rooms of Zen monasteries. On this placard is written, "Don't just do something, sit there!"