Although David Robilliard is now viewed with the gift of hindsight as being essentially a London artist, a closer examination of his life betrays that he stemmed from a more parochial soil, that of the Channel Islands. He no more represents '80's London by birth, than Andy Warhol embodies '60's Manhattan. It's their work and it's ethos that bequeaths them this status and blends them both so firmly into the fabric of their adoptive cities. Circumstance and happenstance gilded their evolution as gay men. Warhol escaped the confines of Pittsburgh for the heady promises of the Big Apple. Robilliard fled the stifling nature of island life, arriving in London in the early '70s become an artist and poet.
Warhol was a pioneer of the cult of celebrity to such a degree that what he was obsessed with, he became. If Andy was the iconic priest of superstardom. a right he bequeathed to his hangers on, then Robilliard was the curate of the ironic. The subjects of his paintings and poems were fleeting fascinations, friends and obsessions. Beauty glimpsed in the street or on the underground. It became his goal to capture and retain all the joy and sadness, and what falls between. His work is as fresh and stimulating as the day they were painted. Only the dates in the their corners give the game of time away.
That Robilliard has largely been ignored in Britain casts a shameful shadow on the artistic establishment. Were he American he would be celebrated, venerated and costly to accquire, like Basquiat. This show is his first in two decades, but in that time he has had two paintings bought by the Tate, and was the subject of a massive retrospective in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1994. Since his untimely death in 1988 at the age of 36, society has moved closer to his vision. The brevity of his poetry belongs perfectly in the age of the tweet and the sound-bite; the colourful words in both hue and tone that leap from his canvases seem perfectly in step with a modern sensibility.
Always an outsider, he movingly represents a huge surge of the creative spirit. Untutored and untrained he had the nerve and drive to transcend the mockery and derision he often provoked. It wasn't always so. Once, in the earliest days, he hid his efforts under the stairs, fearful of the ridicule he would face. In the end he could stand proudly beside his work in respected galleries , the ultimate vindication of his quest, and his uniqueness remains because his style, so naturally his own, remains instantly recognisible. He was championed by the artists Gilbert & George, who immediately grasped the importance of his efforts. There was no-one like him then, and so it remains today.
The work in "The Yes-No Quality Of Dreams" will be a revelation to many. Hardly anyone under the age of thirty five would have encountered his paintings in such volume before. Sometimes sad, occasionally lewd, often winsome, his large canvases of text and linear portraits spans "A Roomful Of Hungry Looks," "Too Many Cocks Spoil The Breath," and "Life Isn't Good It's Excellent". The swagger, attitude and fervour conjures a pure delight, tempered by a real sadness at so much left undone. It is unlikely at the age of sixty one, the age he would be now, that David Robilliard might have become respectable. He may have grown more knowingly sophisticated. He would have been respected, but I doubt if he could ever have found any laurels comfortable enough to rest upon.
The ICA are to be applauded for staging such a vibrant and original show to one who richly deserves such diligence and scrutiny. The catalogue is a perfect souvenir. Beautifully designed and informative it is a sure-footed step into a future of bigger, more detailed exhibitions. It even has a rare spoken word tape transcribed to digital immortality of Robilliard reading his poems. Think of Stevie Smith's lines running into a verbal in a tango with the drawings of Ivor Cutler. Edward Lear and Jean Cocteau.
I recently glimpsed an early poem of Robilliard's lurking in the corner of one of his youthful, unknown paintings that a friend of his brought along to the Private View. It embodies and emboldens the Robilliard irreverent spirit and is a perfectly optimistic few lines with which to close. Almost a mission statement of his maverick intentions, a quip from a seaside postcard.
Start a movement.
Eat prunes. - Rob Cochrane
Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, the biography of the rock singer Jobriath.