Exploring Duality with Robyn A. Frank
Meet Robyn A. Frank, a New Mexico-based artist whose work doesn’t shy away from color, uses bold shapes and lines, and explores the interconnectedness and duality of all things in the world. We’re thrilled that she’s our first gallery artist for 2023, featuring new works in her show A myth of singularity.
Robyn moved from her hometown of Tampa, Florida to enroll at the Pratt Institute in New York, where she studied printmaking. As a professional art fabricator, she honed her skills in business operations, project budgeting, and scheduling. She transferred these skills to work as a business administrator for big corporations, but realized that they were leading her away from art making and what she truly loved to do.
In 2019, Robyn moved from the Big Apple to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Robyn has made creating art a full-time career. We got a chance to ask Robyn a few questions about process and practice, the themes of A myth of singularity and the dualities of life.
Rare Device: In your About section on your website, you make sure to call out the indigenous land that we know as New Mexico, and the native tribes it belongs to. When did you start doing this? Why is this important to you?
Robyn A. Frank: Yes, hi! I’m Robyn, I live and work in Albuquerque, New Mexico. These are occupied Tiwa lands, the closest Pueblos being Sandia and Isleta. The Tiwa name for the Sandia Pueblo is Tuf Shur Tia. The Tiwa name for the Isleta Pueblo is Shiewhibak.
I believe I started this practice in 2019. I find this an important practice, albeit small gesture, to support indigenous visibility and sovereignty. As an artist making work inspired by this place, I feel so strongly to never talk about it as “mine.” I am grateful to be of this place, and that includes a responsibility to it, to be in reciprocity with it. But it is not mine. I do not possess it, and so I think the land acknowledgement is one way to perform that belief.
These ideas were solidified after attending a panel discussion that was moderated by Dr. Alicia Inez Guzmán. The panel discussed why the term “O’Keeffe Country” is an inappropriate way to describe the Abiquiú area, a place that Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted. Panelists included Dr. Corrine Sanchez, Executive Director of Tewa Women United, Dr. Christina M. Castro, co-founder of the Three Sisters Collective, and Santa Clara Pueblo artist, Jason Garcia. There’s so much in this discussion, and I really encourage you to go listen. The discourse about Georgia O’Keefe, and a broader established lineage of artists moving to New Mexico from urban centers like New York City (where I moved here from) was powerful. In their moving, the artist may — either directly in the moving or indirectly through the relationship to a place — perpetuate a colonial conception, or a white fantasy of places like New Mexico as an “empty,” or “wild,” “middle of nowhere,” to “find yourself.” And as I am able, I don’t want to perpetuate that narrative.
RD: You’ve mentioned that your artwork explores the cyclical connection between creation and loss, and that A myth of singularity investigates the sense of singularity in relation to the concept of “another”. What other dualities does your work explore, and what dualities will they explore in the future?
RAF: I think that the work really has one central duality and it's an illusory premise that can be hard to grasp for me, even for me as I’m making the work. Duality is a framing for a relational experience of all things. That to experience ourselves we do so in a relationship — in relationship to others, our surroundings and so on. The idea that we are, or any one of us is singular is a fallacy, a myth. We are all interconnected. So the show’s title, A myth of singularity, hints at these ideas. I specifically chose the article A instead of The to further this idea of plurality and openness.
This idea of relational experience, or duality is everywhere in our lives. To inhale, or to create, we must exhale, or have loss. They are inescapably connected.
Another read on the title, if you use the definition of singularity in math, it's a point at which a function set starts to behave chaotically. And so you could read the title in this way as a myth of expectation that a function set would always behave as expected. You can’t think of a function set as life, people, anything. Or in science, a singularity is the point at which space time bends in on itself. Interconnectedness is baked into the cake so to speak, despite an overwhelming set of colonial societal constructs that would have us believe we are single or individuals.
RD: Can you talk about your process? Do you start with shapes and what they represent? Colors? Theme? Does the placement of color gradient in a piece represent anything?
RAF: My process for developing compositions is very iterative and can begin in any of the ways you’ve mentioned. It can begin with an idea or a feeling. Or a visual concept that I want to explore. When I’m making a piece, I’m always trying to reduce the elements. So distill the idea down to the least amount of information that can tell the most story. Does placement represent anything? Yah. Absolutely, and that meaning shifts from piece to piece. Generally, the composition or placement of elements seeks to evoke these ideas I’m exploring. For instance, one of the pieces in this collection, “Two sides together,” a circle split in half. One side is effectively black and the other a gradient that you might see in a sunset sky. The halves together hopefully give you this idea of transition or movement with stillness, or a sense of night with day, or death with life. This one is playing with this idea of two sides of the same coin, back to this interconnected experience of duality. And that both relational opposites are necessary to function wholly.
More on my process — I sketch in photoshop and layer files so each compositional element is a layer. I can take things away, move elements, and resolve a complete idea. I mix the paints to the colors on the screen so the pieces stay very close or exactly to the digital sketch. For the pieces that I use spray paint, I have made a swatch library of those paints in photoshop so I can sketch with that palette more accurately. Concurrent to sketching, I’m doing panel prep which takes at least a week to do a batch of smaller panels like the ones in this collection. This is applying many thin layers of gesso and lots of sanding both with an orbital sander and by hand to achieve a very smooth painting surface. This collection uses spray paint for the gradients. So I'm working with these water based spray paints and am able to achieve really nice vibrant gradients. The flat or solid color fields are painted with thin layers of fluid acrylic paint and sanded again between layers to have a smooth surface. My varnish process is a bit in flux right now because of supply chain issues, the product that had been my go-to for varnish has been discontinued. This collection uses a spray varnish so that there is a UV protectant on the pieces and a bit more surface protection.
RD: What is your practice like? Do you work as an artist full-time, or is creating art something you find yourself having to make time for?
RAF: I do work as a artist full-time and I still have to find time to make the work. The work of being an artist and the work creating art really add up. Like documentation and social media. I try to stay active on Instagram and Tik Tok (@robynafrank). And I have a collection of prints and blankets that are available in retail stores so that is its own work stream and marketing process. We have a selection of blankets at Rare Device right now! Plus, applications to gallery shows and relationship building across any kind of opportunity is a must. I also do murals and custom work so there can be a lot of investment in the design phase on projects like that, before you even get to painting the piece. Then there’s packing and shipping orders, bookkeeping, taxes, so, yah! Full-time and still have to carve out time to make paintings.
There’s a kind of vibration you can bring about in how you put colors together.
RD: Are there certain color combinations that you find yourself going back to time and time again? Do they have any personal relevance to you?
RAF: I use color to both give a sense of place and create a sense of time. So referential or local color for this sense of place would be using colors observed here in the greater Albuquerque basin and in New Mexico. Like the light on the Sandia mountains across time of day and time of year — could frankly in and of itself be a whole basis for an art practice. I’m also looking at plants, rock strata, the way light bounces off adobe walls; the way feather grass is vibrant green in the summer and a pale kind of celadon in the winter. When I use gradients, it's always about transition. The sunrise/ sunset motif is used because it's this seemingly routine but grand moment we might experience, everyday. An observable moment of change is one I can use to talk about these emotional ideas, or our interior; transition as an activity of self-creation, of one to another, a becoming. And for color combinations, well — generally I’d say I’m interested in combining near compliments. So not exact opposites on the color wheel but something nearly opposite because it makes each color feel more itself. There’s a kind of vibration you can bring about in how you put colors together. And I’m interested in creating a visual experience that plays with depth, space, what feels “in front” or “in back” and color (hue, value, intensity) can do a lot of that.
RD: From Tampa, Florida, to New York and now in Albuquerque, can you talk us through a bit about your geographical journey to becoming an artist, what you learned along the way and how each place informed your art practice? Follow up question: If this journey was represented as an art piece, what colors would you choose for each time period? Where would the gradients begin for each one? What shapes would be significant and what would they represent?
RAF: I think in addition to trying to reflect on the effect a geographical place has on myself and my art practice, I think it’s also about time and who I was, what’s going on in the world. Like Florida is where I grew up and the ecology of Florida — a cypress swamp, a mangrove, a roseate spoonbill, spanish moss, the warm ease of the gulf — it’s something I’ll remain enamored with. It's also a place I had a hard time being in. Fat, Jewish, queer. I definitely had my close friends who were also against the grain, so to speak, but — it’s a conflicting place to include in my story and, part of it all the same. I’ve been making art and painting since I was very very little. Self-directed, I did studies of Picasso and Kandinsky paintings when I was maybe 10, and so on. Art and image making has always been a practice for myself to help me understand the world. And so I moved to New York to go to art school. I graduated from Pratt before the economic recession of 2008 and so I had a few years to begin a career in the fine art world but the recession slowed a lot of that work and I pivoted to do business operations for financial stability. In so many ways, New York both brought me closer to and very far away from my art practice. And a big reason for the move to Albuquerque was for the beauty in this place and to make art here. I moved to Albuquerque one year before the pandemic started after visiting for a few years, so I had a little bit of time to build a community or try and plug in to what is going on. And people show up for you here. There’s a real and felt shared interest in what people are making so that has been wonderful to experience. And — it’s a pandemic right, it's still hard to have closeness, to be close. Working alone, going through all of the experience of death and uncertainty in a place relatively new to me, it’s had its own challenges for sure.
Hm, your follow up question, you know, I don’t know what that would look like. I haven’t approached any one piece in that way. I will say I try to keep the work open enough that while it may be biographical, there’s a purposeful open endedness to the work that I hope creates space and conversation for/with the viewer. I hope they can see themselves in the work. But this question does make me think of how when I was little I had this idea of the universe as being another color somewhere else. Like that our part of the universe was black but somewhere else it’d be hot pink or yellow. Maybe as the universe keeps expanding, we’ll get to the hot pink part. I hope so.
RD: We’re upon a new year! What does it hold for you? Any pieces you’re working on or want to plug?
RAF: Yah! Happy 2023. Well, kicking this year off with Rare Device is so awesome, and I’m so glad this came together. Looking ahead, I’m installing a couple of murals at commercial real estate properties this year in New Mexico and Texas. And have a custom commission in the design phase. I love doing custom work for homes, offices, businesses, wherever, so that is something I’m excited about. I’m going to release a limited edition print this year that will be a larger format than my 8x10’s that I typically offer. Definitely follow along on Instragram @robynafrank to stay in touch or visit www.robynafrank.com for my newsletter sign up. Beyond that, we’ll fill in the blanks as we go and make time to make new work!A myth of singularity is in our gallery from January 20th - March 5th. You can also purchase pieces from the show online.