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Robert Rivers - The Florida Prize

The Florida Prize

Coralie Claeysen - Gleyzon
Chief Curator 
Orlando Museum of Art

Homo homini lupus est [Man is a wolf to man].

An accomplished draftsman and printmaker, Robert Rivers, who has taught art at university level since 1980, sees his art practice as “what it is,” he says, “practice, exercise; I like seeing the mechanics of the drawings.” On April 28, 2010, Rivers’s nephew, Thomas, was killed during the war in Afghanistan, where he had been deployed as a Marine after a first deployment in Iraq a few years earlier. Perhaps as a way of coping with grief or to make sense of this incommensurable loss, soon after Thomas’s passing, Rivers began a series of prints portraying a sleeping soldier with a snake wrapped around his body.

He made more than 400 works in that series and titled them The War Prints. These paved the way for his ongoing piece The Promised Land (2010 – to date), a monumental drawing composed of 231 panels (at the time of writing) **reaching an epic length of over 500 feet –about 180 feet of which are on view in the Florida Prize exhibition. Rivers recalls that ascending the soaring mountains of Torres del Paine during a trip to Chile, as well as building a 23-stall barn for his wife’s horses, gave him an idea of the scale of the work he could accomplish and prompted him to take on this challenge and embark on this quest.

The first panel Rivers created for The Promised Land focused on the wound of the fallen soldier, and the whole cycle of drawings started to flow –literally– out from there in a way reminiscent of the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, who describes **in **his bestselling novel One Hundred Years of Solitude the journey of a trail of blood that travels across town, from a slain son to his mother. Rivers’ influences are as diverse as can be: from the draped and shrouded figures of Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy; Mauricio Lasansky’s Nazi Drawings; Indian miniatures; Gauguin’s Tahiti period paintings; Yūrei-zu Japanese ghost prints; and the Assyrian reliefs of the Royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal in the British Museum, to depictions of The Descent from the Cross, Egyptian friezes, Greek mythology, and Mark Twain’s War Prayer, in which sons are sent to war to “die the noblest of noble deaths,” essentially anchoring all human experience in a common, timeless, and universal reality.

In The Promised Land, several worlds are woven together through the visual fabric of the work, led by recurrent motifs, such as that of the wounded soldier –easily identifiable with his shaved head and combat boots– who guides us along his journey through the underworld. Much of the journey is dark; ethereal figures haunt barren landscapes of rocky desert grounds; prickly vines become tangled with anatomically correct severed limbs; flayed skin and flesh hang down in graceful fashion, like a drapery. The use of ceramic glazes and a wash made of tea and rust-colored acrylic paint recalls dried-up bloodstains. Occasionally, we are offered a moment of solace in a scene of pure serenity: a comforting mother holding a child, a soft translucent veil over a face, a refreshing waterfall appearing in an otherwise desolate vista. The woman is “muse-like, quiet and serene, with a classical stare. Her soothing presence has absorbed the pain in her cloth,” says Rivers.

Executed in a realist technique and mixing elements of naturalism and cartoonism, the work retains a sketch-like quality. Sometimes two faces merge into one, figures are endowed with multiple arms, suggesting at once movement and multiplicity. By way of telling the story of one, Rivers is telling the story of many. Repetition is also a tool of the trade; Rivers is used to the repetitiveness of the printmaking process as well as the sketching practice, whereby “practice makes perfect.” The recurrence of motifs such as animal and human figures, the poppy (when his nephew’s camera was recovered, it contained a photo of Thomas in his combat uniform, carrying his gun and two large drooping poppies), as well as openings, tombs, boxes, vignettes, and tableaux, are portals along the journey which connect to other worlds and echo throughout the work. Pedestals are a visual trope making obvious the act of looking, a tool to “put things on view” and add a visual emphasis. Often the objects on pedestals depart from classical conventions and take on grotesque cartoonish features.

Having trained both elephants for a circus and horses –actively riding and training jumpers for several years, Rivers has an affinity for animals. In The Promised Land, however, Nature is not something to be tamed; it is dangerous, predatory, cruel, and unpredictable. Both flora and fauna are threatening in the work. Even nature has turned on man, or perhaps Rivers’s depiction of nature is a true reflection of the “nature” of man. In a humanist way, Rivers bears witness to the fragility of man as a prey caught between human violence and its untamable nature. The title of the work itself is rather revealing, of a “land of milk and honey” promised by God, yet which is, to this day, still hopelessly torn apart.

The sheer scale and scope of the work, with its convoluted linear narrative and endless sequential views, is at once overwhelmingly terrifying and astonishingly beautiful. Professor Robert Croker describes it as “a rumination upon death in general, by violence in particular; the fragility and persistence of life; the uncertainty of an afterlife, the innocence of youth, and the intensity with which our lives are bound to one another, regardless of circumstance.”

Robert Rivers, Florida Prize in Contemporary Art 2021, Orlando Museum of Art

Robert Rivers is the recipient of the Florida Prize in Contemporary Art 2021.

Robert Rivers — 2021 Florida Prize — Virtual Studio Visit


In Episode 5 of the series, Orlando Museum of Art Senior Curator Hansen Mulford and Associate Curator Coralie Claeysen-Gleyzon meet with Maitland artist and longtime UCF professor Robert Rivers to discuss his love for drawing and his epic, large-scale works.

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