Artist Leo Robinson on Rejecting Modernity and Embracing Mythology

From transcending humanity to folk tales, the artist discusses work currently on view at Tiwani Contemporary, London

Leo Robinson conjures up an alternate reality that seems to exist outside of time. Both futuristic and ancient, his series of works on paper featured in ‘Theories For Cosmic Joy’, his first solo exhibition in the UK at Tiwani Contemporary, presents a narrative that you might expect to find in a medieval tapestry or classical fresco. Robinson, who is also a musician, employs a combination of elaborately detailed illustration, watercolour, sculpture and collage and uses a fictional civilisation to explore conflicts within himself. Drawing on influences spanning Plato, William Blake, alchemy and Buddhist philosophy, his work meditates on the polarities of human existence and desires to transcend earthly realities. Despite many of the titles of his works being instructional, he deliberately avoids providing straightforward answers, instead compelling the viewer to slow down and look closely, both at the artworks and at themselves.

Aurella Yussuf You’ve created this alternate civilisation, with overarching themes and arcs. How did this evolve?

Leo Robinson  I would trace this general narrative back about three years now, this allegorical, almost like one grand folk tale that spans all of the works. It all stems from me trying to put into an image the things that are happening within myself, that I don’t really know how to talk about. There are a lot of conflicting ideas. You’ll notice that most of the pieces in the show have at least two elements that are in direct conflict with each other. It’s a way for me to understand what I’m feeling and understand the conflicts within myself, and I suddenly realise as I’m making the work, oh that makes sense because that’s how I’m feeling. Looking at my own attachments and making them something more universal.

Leo Robinson, ‘Theories for Cosmic Joy’, 2019, installation view, Tiwani Contemporary, London. Courtesy: Tiwani Contemporary, London

Leo Robinson, ‘Theories for Cosmic Joy’, 2019, installation view, Tiwani Contemporary, London. Courtesy: Tiwani Contemporary, London

AY There are also various figures which reappear across different pieces. Do you see them as characters?

LR  It’s not so much that the individual figures in the pieces, they don’t necessarily have a character. It’s more like a group of people and their action. One sect of this world is called the Bug Eaters. It’s taking the idea of returning to the primitive state to its extreme. To the point where it’s almost ridiculous, they’re eating bugs, worshipping the earth to an extreme or rejecting modernity to an extreme. That kind of element that I see in myself and in the wider world, a reflection of various attitudes, that becomes an ideal and is shown [in the work] by people who enact that ideal to the extreme. 

AY  The show is quite philosophical, and it also features iconography which is very Greco-Roman. I wanted to know a bit more about some of your influences aesthetically?

LR  I always find this question quite difficult to pin down. My influences aesthetically within the work, it’s almost a chance process, whatever source material I come across. It’s generally books that I find. I was looking at a lot of alchemy and art that came along with alchemy. That’s another example of an extreme ideal taken to its limit, this searching and longing for something that will transcend humanity. All the different ideals [in the work] deal with trying to transcend humanity. Through alchemy, through technology, through rejecting technology. 

Leo Robinson, ‘Theories for Cosmic Joy’, 2019, installation view, Tiwani Contemporary, London. Courtesy: Tiwani Contemporary, London

AY  I also noticed in the titles of the pieces – Device (Spiritual Transformation Through Mechanical Processes) and Three Saints (Extracting the Souls of Mortal Birds) – they’re very much about going through some kind of ritual. Quite a few of them also mention ‘instruction’ which ties back to your interest in alchemy and trying to create something, make something happen.

LR  I like the idea of the show being almost like a guide in a surreal way, instructing you on something or telling you profound narratives. Everyone wants to transform in some way, transcend to another plane of existence, and they do so throughout their lives. I wanted to create something, evoke that need within them but in a way that’s confusing and dense. It just brought up those feelings of wanting to move to another level of being.

Leo Robinson, ‘Theories for Cosmic Joy’, 2019, installation view, Tiwani Contemporary, London. Courtesy: Tiwani Contemporary, London

Leo Robinson, ‘Theories for Cosmic Joy’, 2019, installation view, Tiwani Contemporary, London. Courtesy: Tiwani Contemporary, London

AY  Do you draw on any specific areas of folklore or mythology or religion?

LR  Buddhist philosophy is something that has inspired the work. There is a second thread running through, apart from the extremes and the reaching for something more, which is the middle way, which is a Buddhist concept. That is the conclusion I’d like to take away from it. I’m presenting such extreme opposites and presenting these ideals in a way that they seem exaggerated and futile and manic, but the takeaway that I want from that is the middle way, which is not being taken by all these pushes and pulls of desires. 

Leo Robinson, ‘Theories for Cosmic Joy’, is on view at Tiwani Contemporary, London, until 13 September 2019.

Main image: Leo Robinson, ‘Theories for Cosmic Joy’, 2019, installation view, Tiwani Contemporary, London. Courtesy: Tiwani Contemporary, London

Aurella Yussuf is a London-based writer, curator and art historian. She a founding member of the interdisciplinary research collective Thick/er Black Lines.

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