BFA alumnus’s local gallery show ‘Altar of Commerce’ probes consequences of globalization

"Played" by Bryan Robertson

The work of St. Louis-based artist and teacher Bryan Robertson, who earned his undergraduate degree from UMSL in 2012, includes large-scale paintings as well as digital collages. His 2016 oil painting “Played” measures more than 12 feet in width and is among the pieces that will be on display from July 22 to Aug. 26 at the Cathy Gregory Studio Gallery. (Images courtesy of Bryan Robertson)

Bryan Robertson’s maps of the world look strangely recognizable – despite considerable departures from cartographical norms.

Instead of the typical place names and color blocks, each landmass appears as a cluster of overlapping images. Borders within the African continent frame diamonds and oil wells, while the familiar trademarks of leading companies dominate North America.

“The G7 nations are all represented by corporate logos, and they’re also broken down into states,” Robertson explains. “So Missouri is the Budweiser logo, and then Washington state is Microsoft.”

Those selections are by design, and they speak to Robertson’s longtime interests in both politics and art – the results of which will be in the spotlight this summer. A local gallery is showcasing the University of Missouri–St. Louis graduate’s work from July 22 to Aug. 26.

That opportunity came about unexpectedly, like many welcome occasions in Robertson’s life.

"Superpower: Africa" by Bryan Robertson

The UMSL alumnus’s interests in politics, international relations and questions arising within a commodity-driven world are reflected in a series of digital collages titled “Superpower.”

Last year, while wrapping up his MFA in painting and drawing from the University of Washington and aggressively seeking teaching jobs, the St. Louis native landed an adjunct faculty position at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Missouri. He knew he’d need additional work as well, and so he began reaching out to galleries in the St. Louis region to offer his services.

He eventually heard back from the Cathy Gregory Studio Gallery – located in south city’s Shaw neighborhood – but instead of part-time work, the gallery owners offered him a show.

“They said, ‘We really like your work, and with the current political climate, we think it would work really well, and we want to have a show for you,’” Robertson recalls. “So I went and met with them, and we negotiated dates.”

Titled “Altar of Commerce,” the exhibit will feature not only Robertson’s map pieces but several of his large-scale paintings as well. The largest is more than 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide – big enough that it will require most of one wall inside the gallery.

“It’ll be cool to see that hung up and see that space taken up with my work,” he says.

A 2012 alumnus of UMSL’s Department of Art and Design, Robertson was willing to move many different places to pursue a career teaching art after his graduate studies in Seattle. But he loves St. Louis, and the soon-to-be father says he’s glad to be back in his hometown for lots of reasons.

“I could have gone anywhere, but I came back here, and I think that’s the best place to be,” he says. “And the art department at Jefferson College has been great.”

It’s “actually kind of like a mini-UMSL,” Robertson adds, noting that it was founded around the same period as his undergraduate alma mater and sports a lot of similar architecture.

The college also is now offering an associate degree in fine art for the first time, and Robertson helped to spearhead a newly established transfer agreement between his new employer and UMSL.

“I’ve already had a couple students from last year say they’re transferring here [to UMSL] next year,” he says, “so I feel pretty good about that.”

"Superpower: Babylon" by Bryan Robertson

Corporate logos dominate a map of North America in Bryan Robertson’s 2016 piece titled “Superpower: Babylon.”

Robertson’s own experience at UMSL makes him especially enthusiastic to think of those future Tritons furthering their artistic pursuits. He knows they’ll find top-notch offerings in terms of studio space and other key facilities along with teachers who are eager to help their students succeed and bring all sorts of projects to fruition.

Associate Professor of Art Philip Robinson stands out for him personally.

“Phil’s really good at talking out ideas and contributing to that sort of deeper thought if you want to go down that road with him,” Robertson says. “He’s a great problem-solver, so if you have concerns about how to put something together, he’s going to help you do that or put you in touch with the right person who can.”

Now a teacher in his own right – both as an adjunct professor and at the St. Louis Artists Guild, where he offers a course in abstract painting – Robertson remembers several adults having a big impact on him creatively as a child. He hopes to offer that same kind of support to his students.

One source of inspiration has always been his uncle, who passed away when Robertson was about 4 years old.

“I was told that he always dreamed of being a painter,” Robertson says. “And we had this beautiful stained-glass piece that he made, and I saw that growing up and thought, ‘Oh, I wish I could make something like that.’ So ever since then, it motivated me to start painting and drawing.”

A first-grade teacher – and his classmates at the time – also fostered his love for art. Once an assignment required him to draw four different faces, each portraying a different emotion.

When Robertson showed the rest of the class what he’d come up with, the response was memorably enthusiastic. Everyone seemed to think it was “the greatest thing.”

“And I was just a little guy and they were probably trying to encourage me,” he says now. “But when I saw the reaction that people can have from art, it really made me to want to keep doing it.”

In his most recent pieces, where he combines that passion with deep questions about a heavily commercialized existence, the health of democracy and lingering effects of colonization, Robertson aims to add something positive to the conversation about such issues.

“I know we can do better,” he says when asked what his works suggest about the costs of globalization. “I think that’s what it comes down to – that we can do better. But I don’t really know how we can do better.

“I always get stuck on that. You can go march and maybe that will do something, but you need a million, maybe 10 million people to march for real change to happen. And you need to have clearly defined goals, too. Everything is so abstract and clouded and almost shrouded in camouflage these days that to even sort of begin to unpack it is tough.”

But his upcoming show – which kicks off with a reception set for 5 to 8 p.m. July 22 at the Cathy Gregory Studio Gallery – is one attempt to push toward that.

“I have my point of view, but I want people to have their own point of view,” he says. “I hope that if it reaches enough people and affects enough people, then that’s a way to contribute to these ideas.”

To view more of Robertson’s work, check out his website.

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