Robin Walker’s show Anti-Self Help at Shift Gallery is an interesting combination of personal awareness, inquisitiveness, and artistic skill. Beginning with an alarmingly violent thought while in pain, Walker was compelled to capture it. As she says in her statement, “I was trying to go to bed one night, but my breast was in excruciating pain. Pills didn’t work. I kept imagining cutting it off. Suddenly I had empathy for people who remove their own infected teeth and anyone who may have sawed off a limb that was grievously trapped under a fallen boulder.”
Why did this bizarre thought cross her mind? Did she want to inflict even more pain on herself? If so, why? “Did calling attention to my breasts make me think about moments of being objectified, thus wanting to remove symbols of my gender?”
In graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Walker remembered what a speaker once told the assembly of budding artists. They were encouraged to let their freak flags fly. Imagining cutting off her breast was certainly a freak moment, so she sketched that evening while still in pain. She finalized two paintings based on these sketches where the objects surrounding the figure of herself became different narratives – alternative possibilities to what her reaction to the pain meant. Other works in the show are also inspired by and are explorations of less than desirable traits or emotions: jealously, obsession, insecurity, a need for control.
Western society is preoccupied with perfection, imposing it on us in myriad ways. Walker, through testing aesthetic boundaries via dichotomies (beauty and ugliness, kitsch and serious art, sweetness and lewdness) brings a bit of humor to a tough subject. Perfection, for women especially, is a well-known burden. By acknowledging mistakes or imperfections in the work through both subject matter and by breaking a few formal aesthetic rules, she exposes her shadow self personally and artistically. “I believe that dissonance creates beauty and interest, and vulnerability creates connection.” Carl Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious” – something Walker is doing in these works with candor, humor, a bit of grit, and a lot of well-executed intention.