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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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the royal art lodge
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6799
reviews

Cynthia Roberts, untitled 1999, oil on canvas

A CONVERSATION WITH CYNTHIS ROBERTS • NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Cynthia Roberts is a young, New York-based artist. She had her first one-person exhibition, in January of ‘99 at Tricia Collins Contemporary Art in SoHo. Her show consisted of several large canvases depticting weeping and/or laughing horses, rendered with splashes of pastel colors and inky black and blue hues. She also displayed several small horse-head sculptures constructed out of papier-maché, clay, and found objects. Trying to discover some insight direct from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, I had a chance to interview Cynthia this fall and ask her questions about her work.
Layla Lozano: How do you explain your work to people who may be viewing it for the first time?
Cynthia Roberts: My work is about the dynamic coexistence of conflicting states.
LL: How long have you been using images of this horse? Can you remember when they first came into being?
CR: About a year and a half ago, I became inspired by a photo of an equestrian monument in Italy for Can Grande della Scala—specifically, by the face of his horse. The horse’s face was covered with medieval armament so the eyes were exaggerated, the head adorned, and the sheath of his nose made hygenic in this sculpture. It was an image I couldn’t shake. I kept making it and making it, and I keep making it, in some form today. From that point of interaction with this particular horse image, I began to seek out other “horse sources”—to mine the empathy that I think this creature possesses, or appears to possess. Or sadness. Or nobility. All the horses are different. I’ve gone to the police stables in New York City—they appear very militant; even the stable is extremely ordered and each horse tall and strong—they seem organized and commanding.
LL: Your first show, titled “Can Grande and Others”, focused on images of a horse. Can you tell me about the horse? How important is Can Grande to your work still?
CR: Can Grande was essential to me. I unburdened myself of something by using this image. I thought that in order for something to be abstract, it had to look abstract. But, the way in which we use a thing defines how it’s perceived. Like in poetry when ee cummings writes “whose universe a single leaf may be” or when Rilke writes of green birds falling through intimate space—(or more on the humorous side, Shakespeare, whose works are studded with words transforming meaning) when these poets write, the words they use are like vectors, from one point in time to another. The transmission from intent to impact on a reader/viewer, is a time (process) of accretion where all the possibility of a word-construct is loaded up by the poet and all the memories and knowledge of the listener are brought to a moment of impact. In my case, I thought I was using this image of a horse or Can Grande to leap from abstraction into an abstracted reality where states of the mind are conveyed by absurd horses in purple or blue, sometimes sobbing from their cartoon heads, with a vine and flowers growing out of the ear or mouth, or in some cases with a kind of prison or vault engraved onto the horse’s forehead. It seems to me now that there was no leap from abstraction, but instead, abstraction’s wordlessness, a quality akin to that of a mind-object, was transferred to a thing (here, the horse), and that I am using the idea of the thing to convey a state.
LL: I know that during this past year you have made several visits to places such as some stables out in Brooklyn and you even went on a short visit to Kentucky. Have these adventures affected your work at all? It seems to me that your art has gotten greener, if that makes any sense . . .
CR: Maybe there are seasons in the making of art; emotional seasons. I think investigation into any new image or language of imagery, the expansion of the field brings new dimensions to it. Seeing live horses—the horses before dawn exercising out at Turfway Park in Kentucky, when it’s still pre-dawn and you can mostly just hear their lungs as they run, or the ones in Brooklyn that are locked up so much, walking on shitty pavement, or worse, the Central Park ones standing on three hooves at a time—it all brings another level of experience, emotionality to transfer into and out of these images.LL: Were you always using animal images?
CR: After working in pure abstraction for some time, I had begun to create kind of creatures—at first kind of sad cartoons dissolving into the structure of the painting—then these one-eyed birds—bird cyclops, always falling upside down—not flying, falling, staring out at you with a crazy linear scribbled eye. These started to get at what the Can Grande horses do, but perhaps walked too much in that in-between: I needed something that would stare you down, make you sad or happy, or like one guy said, “I feel like I have to ask this horse if he’s really a horse—I make no assumptions—he might just be horse-ness.”
LL: What about your sculptures . . . you exhibited several of them this winter. How do they transmit your ideas differently that your paintings? Are you still working in sculpture?
CR: I made the sculptures initially to have some company in the studio. Also, to really get a feeling of the head I was painting. There was something really corporeal about this kind of sculpture that is undeniable. I keep making them, but it seems there is like a laying time for them; I can’t always make these—they come out when they come out, and usually in a group . . . I also have an idea for a field of “horseflowers” based on some metal work I’ve been doing—in silvery steel—using this combined flower/horse image—that people can walk through, participate in . . .
LL: When describing your work, I’ve often heard people mentioning the words “humorous” and “pathos” in the same sentence . . . how do you think you combine these two feelings in one work of art?
CR: I think that’s the complexity of it all. That’s the same complexity of life. I admire artists like Bruce Nauman, and later Phillip Guston, whose works seem to capture that horror and humour all at once. If everyone did accurate self-portraits everyone would have horrifying and funny works.
LL: What do you think is in us that makes us react almost affectionately when we see images like this? Things like this seem to bring out a certain sentimentality out of humans. Not unlike that story The Velveteen Rabbit . . .
CR: I think one of the powers of painting, one of the unavoidable powers of painting, is to inspire memories or sensations in people. Beyond Jung’s notion of a common, or universality to our collective memory, each individual is a compendium of experiences. I remember one very poised and beautiful woman stopping in front of my sculptures and sighing, “Oh,” she said, “this one looks like the giraffe I used to visit in the zoo as a little girl. I love giraffes.” I can only guess that what gets people is a form of empathy the work sends out. If it’s a kind empathy or an empathy of understanding, acceptance, I guess that’s okay . . .

Layla Lozano
New York, New York
1999