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Robin Bright: The Exquisite Elegance of Minimalist Objects

Robin Bright Banner
Robin Bright in his studio in Encinitas, CA. | Photo: John Durant.
Robin Bright in his studio in Encinitas, CA. | Photo: John Durant.

In our age of overabundant social media hype and marketing, reticence about self-promotion can hinder some artists from getting their due. Such is the case for Robin Bright, who prefers to let his work speak for itself. His exquisitely crafted work tends to converse with us in quiet and subtle ways anyway.

It's been many years since Bright, now 81, had a solo museum exhibition in his own San Diego County backyard -- or anywhere else. A show surveying his body of work at the Oceanside Museum of Art -- opening February 6 and continuing through July 24 -- is his first retrospective in a museum setting since 1981.

"I've been more interested in what galleries could do for me," Bright says, "in what I needed for the wherewithal to go to the studio everyday."

Left image: "Hector Vex 201," 1990, 24 x 8 inches, steel. / Photo: John Durant. | Right image: Courtesy Eric Phleger Gallery.
Left image: "Hector Vex 201," 1990, 24 x 8 inches, steel. / Photo: John Durant. | Right image: Courtesy Eric Phleger Gallery. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, he exhibited regularly at either of two La Jolla galleries: Quint or Thomas Babeor, earning admiration from critics and collectors alike. His work also garnered attention in Los Angeles with the late Burnett Miller and his space on La Brea. But in the last decade or so, his solo shows have been in non-commercial spaces, such as the Taylor Library in Pacific Beach in 2008, where he exhibited a vibrant series of intricately patterned brightly colored wall compositions in plaster.

The work itself, exquisitely crafted and mostly spare in structure, is elegant if generally difficult to categorize. He has long been making pieces for the wall that aren't quite paintings, but these compositions aren't quite full-blown sculptures either. It's as if he doesn't want you to settle too easily on what you are seeing. The way Bright uses the wall puts us in mind of paintings and drawings and yet the materials he frequently emphasizes, bronze and plaster, are sculptural.

His sources of inspiration vary widely, too. In one series, lines in bronze evoke a famous chair by the early 20th century Viennese architect and designer Josef Hoffmann. In another example, the lower portion resembles the blade of an ancient ax. Still in others, what appear to be purely geometric forms spell out words.

Left image: "Hector Vex #461," 2007, 10 x 7 ½ inches, steel on wood. / Photo: © Robin Bright, courtesy Quint Gallery. | Right image: "Hector Vex #361," 1998, 12 x 10 ½ inches, steel and plaster. / Photo: © Robin Bright, courtesy Quint Gallery.

Bright, who was born in New York but grew up mostly in New Mexico, was back in New York by the 1960s, installing exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum for his day job. Minimalism was in its heyday and its emphasis on the understated form, on industrial materials and on repetition all had an impact on his evolution.

Seminal minimalists like Donald Judd also embraced the idea of art objects that identified with both painting and sculpture. And Bright clearly subsumed this approach into his own oeuvre.

Past and present converge in various ways in his art. He has absorbed the history of geometric abstraction in painting quite thoroughly; you can see a trace of de Stijl here, a nod to Barnett Newman there. And it isn't only modernist abstraction that interests him: he has a passion for pattern adapted from Persian tapestries and Indian miniature painting, that led to a series during the past decades that is exuberant in color and intricate in its patterns. He has employed richly worked surface patinas as well, creating the illusion of work that has aged gracefully over a long period of time.

Left image: "McGaffney," 2007, 20 x 10 inches, tinted hydrocal. / Photo: John Durant. | Right image: "San Crystobal," 2005, 17 x 12 inches, tinted hydrocal. / Photo: John Durant.
Left image: "McGaffney," 2007, 20 x 10 inches, tinted hydrocal. / Photo: John Durant. | Right image: "San Crystobal," 2005, 17 x 12 inches, tinted hydrocal. / Photo: John Durant.

One longstanding reminder of his love of history is a title he has used repeatedly, "Hector Vex," simply adding a number to it for each addition to the ongoing series. While living in New York in the 1960s, Bright came upon a sheet of paper in an alley that contained the name of a computer language, Vector Hex. He knew nothing about it, in technical terms, and still doesn't. But, Bright explains, he relished the phrase and adapted it. His title alludes to Hector, Prince of Troy, the peace-loving and tragic martyr of Greek mythology and Homer's "Iliad" -- a nod to the culture, art and literature of ancient Greece.

Bright is a touch paradoxical in his perspective on his own work. He tends to be modest about his oeuvre, but also projects a sense of contentment about it. Reflecting on recent opportunities to see a spectrum of his art -- at Palomar College's Boehm Gallery in 2004 and now at the Oceanside Museum of Art, he says, "Seeing all of this gives me a sense of pleasure. I stop and say, 'I really did this.'"

His art doesn't express an overt bond with San Diego, but Bright believes he would not have made the rich array of work he has without having moved here in the early 1970s. Coming to La Jolla was serendipitous; his sister lived there and his visits convinced him to relocate. (Bright and his wife now live in Encinitas.)

"It was inexpensive then," he recalls. "I had just been awarded a grant and coming here allowed me to spend all my time on my art. I produced more work in two years than I had during several in New York."

By the time the grant funds ceased, Bright was already convinced he was in the right place. Forty plus years later, he shows no signs of second guessing that decision.

Left image: "Hector Vex #388 (Echos Bones)," 1999, 27 ½ x 23 ½ x 2 ¼ inches, painted steel. / Photo: © Robin Bright, courtesy Quint Gallery. | Right image: "Hector Vex 388 (Vanity of Toil)," 1999, 12 components, dimensions variable, painted steel. / Photo: © Robin Bright; courtesy The Visual Arts Program of the San Diego Public Library, and courtesy Quint Gallery.
"Quemado," 2005, 13 x 11.5 inches, tinted hydrocal. | Photo: John Durant.
"Quemado," 2005, 13 x 11.5 inches, tinted hydrocal. | Photo: John Durant.   
"Untitled #1," 1988, 12 x 7 inches, steel. | Photo: John Durant.
"Untitled #1," 1988, 12 x 7 inches, steel. | Photo: John Durant.   

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