The Drawers - Robin Tewes in Spunky Rooms Essay by Julie Oakes

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Peeping Tomasina:

Ruminating on the Concealment of Robin Tewes

Tewes does not consider the architectural domestic space within tropes usually associated with a woman’s relationship to her home. These pristine, well kept rooms that she images are not the expression of the personality inhabiting the rooms.  This ‘general’ home visualization has not had a house pride make-over. It is not the typical bourgeoisie backdrop but a series of generic stand-ins for a rooms, a symbolic over-all for the domestic situation, a concealment of otherness.   Her secure style reinforces the insistence that the aberrations from the norm and subtle rebellions enacted within this picture of normality are on level ground. This is what it is like, she insists. It is this beige, monotonous, decorous domesticity that is making women less than they can be.

Tewes speaks of a loss of human potential that happens in the modern codification of style. But she finds a subtle release. On the periphery of perfect order, Venus rises (All I Want is my Equal). Within the boundaries, the truth comes out although within the immaculate kitchen, the corporeal woman is only a shade, a ghost of herself as in Revision - #1- Kitchen

Or consider I’m a Good Listener where woman, as symbol, as beauty, as an object herself, is disembodied. Her reflection - the second image, a step of separation away from the original, away from the truth of objectivity - hangs suspended as she stands with her back towards us, with her feet in a clean white midrange bathtub, so that only the backside of her beauty is reflected back into this room of rooms. This room is not an ordinary bath room despite the lack of individuality. It is an odd room for a bath to be in; the carpeted floor, the living room arm chair, the drapes open to an expanse of blue that floats, dreamlike, outside of the room of all rooms, the one and only room. That there is not just one such painting, but several – studies, watercolour, pencil, coloured pencil – proves that Tewes, like Morandi and his repetitive subject matter, senses that with concentration and the dogged pursuit of objectness, truth will be revealed.

Everything about Tewes’ rooms is middle-of-the-road. There is no exceptionality. There is no sign of character. It is important that the room en-frames. It sets up the nature of woman. Tewes’ rooms are not an opportunity for a happy home maker to create an expression of herself. Nothing in Tewes’ rooms has been changed, conquered, created other than the picture of the room, the art object and it is here, framed by a kind of plebeian gentleness, that the rebellion is launched.

There is a double blind at work in Tewes revelation of the truth. Behind the walls, in rooms, in the privacy of enclosure, madness stews, bubbles and boils over like the spatter of fat from a frying pan staining the chrome fittings of a stove with a hard-to-see, difficult to scrub awayness. The orgasm of words that the pretty blonde head could not contain sprays like an unleashed tom cat and marks the domestic territory. Scribbles on the walls. Graffiti protests of social imbalances. There is unrest in this seemingly pristine environment and it is female. Hysteria. The madness of the woman who find herself, because it is her nature to nest, ensconced in an idea of a woman’s place when really she is more than two dimensional. She is more than three dimensional. She is in the fourth dimension where intuition and lunar pull inform her wisdom.

How can change or growth come about if there is no fertilizer, no dirt, no messy menstrual blood, no birthing climate? The pacification of the masses through a working consumerism that was made possible through a wage that would support purchases that seemed to indicate progress - a toilet, a fridge, a TV, a car! - soothes the populace into believing that things are alright. It is only in social desperation that the concept of revolution can begin. Tewes draws aside the curtain of concealment that modernity and socialization has draw over the nature of woman. She finds reason to act out. And in the boundary of her insulated rooms, she reveals the craziness.

It brings to mind John Heidegger’s concept of mankind as “standing reserve”. Although Heidegger’s ‘en-framer’ is modern technology it translates well into the sameness of modernity that came with generic homes. The essay by Ronald Godzinski, Jr. helps to clarify the relevance of Heidegger’s philosophical concept as it can be applied to the work of Robin Tewes.

“From Heidegger’s perspective, en-framing is the way in which truth reveals itself as standing-reserve. We simply cannot avoid its influence or sway. One is already in a relationship with it, so it is not a matter of whether or not I will respond to it. Rather, it is a matter of how I will respond to it. More importantly, our response to the challenge that en-framing emits, is neither completely predetermined nor free.”

Tewes makes the visual statement that it is lack of identity that that comes through as the truth. Her work reveals this through exactly the same process as that which Heidegger  termed ‘unconcealment’. Tewes erases the obfuscation of ‘comfort’ to show what pacifying domesticity leads to.  The ‘standing reserve - the potential unused - is creativity at the price of the placid lifestyle of homogeneity.

Tewes is a New York City girl. She grew up in Richmond Hills, Queens, a blue collar hood. Levittown, NY opened in 1951. It is a suburb on Long Island that opened the way for the middle class to move out of the city and into the suburbs. It was made possible because of sameness as the cost of building multiples led to mass produced homes. The selling feature was a floor to ceiling window that looked out onto an expanse of the outdoors. This was the dream home of the mother’s of the fifties when Robin Tewes was a child. Tewes cites Levittown as being the talked about escape from  the city. She has relatives who made it there. It brings to mind the song “Little Boxes” performed by Pete Seeger and written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962. It became the theme song for the TV show “Weeds” in 2005 when distance from the dream was sufficient to make satirical sketches of the life in these ‘little boxes’ a prime time money making serial. The conformist insinuation of  living in sameness has exerted a recognizable cultural influence upon the majority of the middle class.

Tewes, as many women artists of her generation, is aware and articulate concerning the status of women artists. She is concurrent with such staunch feminist players as The Guerrilla Girls who have substantiated the inequality of women to men in the art world and positively addressed the problems to effective ends. She, like them, has assumed a disguise but where the Guerrilla Girls use theatricality, Tewes uses the soft sell. Tewes decided to focus in on the domestic space and to exert her point of view; within the frame. She makes her point - once you see how woman is framed; she can do whatever she wants.

Robin Tewes has been on a dogged pursuit of understanding with a Zen persistence that interprets her research with the simplicity of a Koan. As in a Koan, the original question posed has an element of the nonsensical and yet the answer is an illumination. What makes up the domestic environment? Since the rooms that Robin Tewes draws represent an interior where the majority of North American women spend their days - and noticing that she has drawn and painted these typical spaces for years - what has her search revealed? The pieces speak the answers in the aberrations from normality that occur within the picture frame, like a message read between the lines or a subliminal voice-over.

To have recorded these spaces connotes that she has observed and documented them. Has she invented rooms, or are they rooms remembered where the details are specifically tied to impressions that were large enough to leave a mark on her consciousness? The insignificant details would have faded away so that the import of the room leapt forward and assumed the attention. To read the messages scribed on the walls (or in an instance on a table top) requires an attention to detail. Often the words have been written and then erased as if the significance of the message is not worthy of being viewed or, if it is a visual, the relationship to the environment is tangential as in ink blot images.

A timorous stance has been taken to catch the intrusive presence off guard.  It is revealing and necessary to spend the time reading, for this is not a loudly proclaimed declaration of being. The walls are whispering. What do they whisper? They say that they have forgotten something, they ask why he is always late, they list the groceries and they talk about art. At the same time as the Cy Twombly-like scribble registers, the words themselves communicate the artist’s thoughts about her discipline.

Within quiet domestic environments, aesthetically arranged, chosen with a particular eye for order and cleanliness, in the intact, pristine expressions of place - Robin Tewes is firm and exact in her presentation of her world. She turns the potential to be picayune, the nonsensical aspect of her Koan, into a dignified illumination. It is the skew in the picture that heightens the revelation - the scribbled insistent messages, often confused and muddled like the niggles of things lost or a reminder to focus - on art, on love, on anything outside of the perfect pristine, seemingly normal, room.

Clothed in tasteful colors and unobtrusive settings, Tewes states her case. This is the world we live in. Look at it. She is unconcealing the innocuous passivity of ‘a woman’s place’ and beneath the surface she exposes a seething vital forcefulness of nature. This is the blood that flows through female veins and gives color to the skin, pith to the matter. Her work reveals the truth of this particular standing reserve, the fourth dimension of femininity. She shows that woman is a force to be reckoned with, a rich and wonderful resource that has been undermined - only temporarily. Tewes’ female is on her way out and up. The room has a view now for inside is unconcealed truth, and Truth is a seer.

Julie Oakes 



 “ (En)Framing Heidegger’s philosophy of Technology” from Essay in Philosophy, A Biannual Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, Jan 2005 from The World Wide Web


Copyright © 2009,  Julie Oakes