Jeff Robinson: Dummy Vexillography is the second exhibit at STNDRD, a gallery project curated by St. Louis artist Sage Dawson and temporarily located within the entrance of the Luminary, a space that facilitates artistic research, production, and presentation through residencies, studios, and exhibitions. STNDRD—comprising only a wall-mounted flagpole and the 10-by-13-foot wall immediately surrounding it—generates unique challenges for participating artists. As a result, STNDRD elicits thoughtful curatorial contributions as artists respond to these architectural prompts, creating works that must consider the physical constraints of the space, as well as the history and significance of flags as cultural objects.
Consistent with recent tendencies in painting and sculpture, and mirroring similar concepts that Raphael Rubinstein proposed in his 2009 essay “Provisional Painting,” or by the New Museum’s inaugural group exhibition, “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” Robinson’s assemblage sculptures often reject conventional skills and are made with unconventional, unassuming materials. The gallery statement for Dummy Vexillography asserts: “[The work] defies […] standards at each stage of making, from design to material and fabrication, and ultimately to intended function. The emblem that results is needlessly overwrought, hopelessly illegible, and utterly useless.” In his studio practice, Robinson creates compulsively crafted objects that are rooted in abstract formalism but are complicated through the significance of industrial or found materials. In Dummy Vexillography, the artist continues this attitude toward form and material but, prompted by STNDRD’s program, directs his efforts toward the careful, time-honored trade of flag design.
Diving into vexillography—the art and practice of designing flags—Robinson began researching flags (which, outside of this show, are not a part of his practice) and soon discovered Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag, a simple how-to guide that distills the principles of flag design into five basic guidelines. Alongside its written instructions, the publication provides illustrated examples of good and bad flags, thus its title. Using this as a starting point, Robinson created his own booklet: a hardback, trifold folio titled simply, Bad Flag. While the original pamphlet is cheap and made of glossy papers that are folded in half and stapled down the center, copies of Bad Flag are stylish art objects; in fact, the booklet is more polished and sleek than any flag that might be crafted with its guide. Two copies of Bad Flag are placed reverently on a shelf, their red buckram covers adorned with cream-colored paper, incised with a star, and embellished with gold ink.
In his book, Robinson lists the five guidelines from the original text but relabels them as “restrictive” principles. He also creates a list of responses that contradict or subvert the original five, which he then used as an impetus to create his flag-like, sculptural work, Dummy Flag. Shifting the purpose of these standards from flag design to art-making, they function differently. Good Flag, Bad Flag maintains that a successful flag should be simple and readily made—attributes that are (typically) in opposition to the purposes of art. Robinson’s flag, if indeed it can be called such, is not simple and is definitely not reproducible. Instead, Dummy Flag is a one-of-a-kind object infused with multiple layers of meaning through research, materials, composition, and construction.
Above the shelf of folios, a black vinyl decal depicts the anatomy of a flag. The diagram is appropriated from Good Flag, Bad Flag and has been altered by Robinson: The orientation has been shifted from horizontal to vertical, the flag’s outlines are dashed instead of solid, and words have been realigned. The diagram further alludes to Robinson’s source of inspiration while helping viewers discern the (mostly) indiscernible flag-like qualities of Dummy Flag—a bricolage of hardware store scraps. In this assemblage, wood, carpet padding, and insulation are meticulously crammed between two panes of glass encased in a frame; three-dimensional materials are compressed into a picture plane that can be viewed from both sides, resulting in an abstract composition that is reminiscent of a cross-section.
Although it looks light, Dummy Flag is heavy enough to warrant additional support beyond STNDRD’s flagpole, and its bottom is supported by a wooden bracket; the piece is fixed in place—unflappable—further negating its intended purpose as a flag. Stars are absurdly omnipresent. A vertical stripe adorned with stars runs down the composition’s center, and paint skins with laser-cut stars are pressed against glass and wrapped around a dowel—tongue-in-cheek motifs that signify the American flag and kitsch patriotism. Referring to the anatomy of a flag diagram, a seemingly abstract section of ceiling tile in the upper corner of Dummy Flag becomes a canton: any quarter of a flag, but usually the upper hoist (left) quarter, such as the American flag’s field of stars. Where the United States has constellated a star for each of its states, proposing a cosmic unity, Robinson has a fist-sized hole in the tile’s center, filled with a thick slab of dried house paint garishly spray-painted and surrounded with yellow insulation material. The crude, circular shape is a meaningless symbol within a self-defeating flag.
While the numerous stars, vertical stripe, and canton section within Dummy Flag facetiously allude to the American flag, the comparison is secondary, and it is only when considered within the context of the installation and its title that it is recognized as such. The overall concept of Dummy Vexillography seems a means to an end—a pretense that allows Robinson to indulge in material experimentation and formalist preoccupations, engaging with and reveling in material culture and painterly styles and traditions, rather than political discourse.
Jeff Robinson: Dummy Vexillography will be on view through November 18, 2016.