Honey from a Knife

Interview with Paul Robles

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By Kegan McFadden

 The following interview took place in Paul Robles’ studio, on Saturday, May 21, 2016.

Kegan McFadden: This latest body of work youre presenting continues to mine the source material youve been known for using for years now. Where does it come from and what is your draw to it?

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Paul Robles: The source materials stem from an old storage box left in the hallway from a previous studio in the Exchange. The box was filled with vintage pornography and 1950-60s Men's magazines ( Hunting and Fishing, Popular Mechanics). I was initially drawn to the quality of the imagery- pre-photoshopped/ digital manipulation.  The sense of nostalgia, seemed to me to be based on reality…real life.  Looking at the vintage pornography, I was trying to decode it, a sort of sexual shorthand and the way it's very formulaic. North America was so prudish back then. Mixing that with men's hobbies and leisure time - the domesticity of hunting and fishing, Popular Mechanics - I found it fascinating. Now sexual imagery is part of everyday life and what was once only available in brown paper bags can be found in fashion magazines and on reality television. It’s difficult to say if thats for better or worse.

KM: Can you walk me through your process … how do you pull out imagery from the found sources?

PR: My process is simple and direct: the imagery has to capture my attention, whether it is the colours in the illustration, gestures, the shag carpet, etc. For me, collage (for a lack of better term), is about making sense of the world; you make things wrong to make them right, or keep them wrong still. The images in the new series can be seen more as confrontational, but I think they also have a warmth and humanity to them too.

 KM: Do you see your work as collage?

PR: I never think of myself as a collage artist, although artists like Hannah Hoch or Max Ernst have a great influence on me!

KM: And for the current show, Honey from a Knife, youve added yet another layer of process … right?

PR: Yes, for the new series I've scanned the images after I’ve cut my design into them, then I enlarge the images substantially, and then re-cut that larger piece. You could say more penance, or mediation for me; repetitive, tiny cuts on the same work.  Also, there's an interest of alchemy, and mysticism on the larger pieces - which could be a sign of me getting older too. (snickers)

KM: The process and the source material adds up to a meditation on masculinities (something Ive witnessed in your work for a long time) but also a more profound, if not puzzling, element of denial or refusal of the image. What do you want to say about that?

PR: I would agree with that. It may come from a mixture of my Catholic upbringing (desire was always suppressed), and the notion of interfering with images. To physically deconstruct them with a scalpel - making them more playful or benign - was my way of stimulating that desire, which I believe is part of our human makeup. I like your observation of refusal- in a way I do - maybe unconsciously- or it could be my humorous way to disappoint and make things more complicated for the viewer.

KM: They also look a lot like a vinyl record, spinning, with the smaller cut marks indicating motion.

PR: As a typical teenager, I was always listening to music whenever I could; doing chores, at work, riding around. Growing up in the late 1970s and 80s, both my parents worked full time, so I didn't get a lot of attention. In a way records created a curious mind. Records, music collecting, back then opened the world around me, and I still have an ongoing sense of discovery. I would say music plays an important role in my practice, in my studio. To see that imprint on my work- whether it's a shape or a metaphor is alright by me!

KM: There really are two distinct approaches in what youre showing: the porno/lifestyle magazine meditations and then these snakes. Tell me about the snakes; they seem very different than previous versions of reptiles (or other animals) youve exhibited.

PR:  Known for my earlier work of cut origami animal familiars which were rendered flat works on paper, I wanted to develop a technique to push paper in a sculptural sense: to engage some sort of movement and uncontrolled flow. Looking at line and form, combined with my interests in traditional Asian paper cuts, the snake presented itself. The connotations of the ubiquitous snake was all there: temptation and sin, as well as alchemy, magic and shape shifting - it all made sense to me.

Kegan McFadden curated Paul Robles’ large-scale cut paper installation, The World is Your Oyster (2006), for Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art. McFadden wrote the accompanying essay to Paul’s solo exhibition My Beautiful War for The New Gallery (2007). He commissioned Robles, alongside Doug Melnyk and tamara rae biebrich, as part of the limited edition folio and exhibition PaperCut which premiered at Malaspina Printmakers Association (2008), then toured to Martha Street Studio. When he isn’t working with Paul, Kegan is thinking about art, writing, and his dog Oliver.