Debating Dario

The long materials list for Love Has Value Because It's Not Eternal includes audio tape recordings of melting glaciers and lovers' heartbeats.
Courtesy of Inman Gallery

Artist Dario Robleto has made it big nationally. The San Antonio native was chosen for the 2004 Whitney Biennial, his work has been included in acclaimed exhibitions like "The Old, Weird America" and "NeoHooDoo," and in 2008 it was the subject of a ten-year survey, "Alloy of Love." Robleto has recently relocated from San Antonio to Houston, and Inman Gallery rented the old Finesilver Gallery space in the Isabella Court Building for a Robleto extravaganza, "Some Longings Survive Death."

This stuff isn't just hype — Robleto makes incredibly unique work, and he's good at what he does. I have always liked Robleto's art, and even on his off days, he's still pretty damn good. But in "Some Longings Survive Death," things are changing. Mechanisms of display dominate the work. Robleto seems like an artist in transition.

Anyone who has seen Robleto's art will recognize his signature elements — the ­obscure and symbolic materials, the exquisite craftsmanship, the palpable strains of longing, nostalgia and mourning. But the current show is dominated by elaborate cabinets, fitted cases, vitrines and shadowboxes. The means of display read as a means of increasing the scale of the artist's traditionally intimate works. I think Robleto's success is, however unconsciously, driving this change. (The siren song of "bigger is better" is hard to resist, and the art world encourages it.)

Each piece Robleto makes comes across as an alchemical, meditative, redemptive endeavor, and historically, the personal scale of his work has been integral to its power, as in Our Sin Was in Our Hips (2001-2002), a famed early piece featuring linked male and female pelvic bone casts. Additionally, Robleto's lengthy materials lists are an essential component of the art. For example: The list for Our Sin reads: "Hand-ground and powderized vinyl records, melted vinyl records, male and female pelvic bone dust, polyester resin, spray paint, pigments, dirt, concert spotlight, Female pelvis made from Mother's Rock 'n' Roll 45 rpm records, Male pelvis made from Father's Rock 'n' Roll 33 rpm records."

People have questioned whether or not Robleto really uses all the stuff — no one would know if he didn't. Others have said it would be even better if it were all just a hoax, that the elaborate lists of ingredients are enough in themselves.

I don't know Robleto and have never heard him speak about his own work, but my sense of things from looking at it is that these activities are an integral part of the process of making his art, that to "cheat" would invalidate it for the artist himself and somehow make it less successful for the viewer. But as Robleto becomes more acclaimed, the work is moving from the intimate magic of objects, the psychic weight of a piece like Our Sin, and becoming more about large-scale display.

The first gallery of "Some Longings" is dominated by two large glass and gilt-­decorated wood cases — one white, one black. Each contains shelves lined with beautifully printed texts framed and presented like family photos. The texts of the black case, The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed (2008), are obituaries of oldest living persons (women); the title shifts as one obituary leads to another and another. This case also contains "hair lockets made of stretched and curled audio tape recording of supercentarians." The Ark of Frailty (2008), a white version of the black case, presents framed information about various "Lazarus" species, so dubbed when living examples of species classified as extinct are found. Here, the "hair lockets" are made from audio tape recordings of Lazarus species. In both pieces, the "hair lockets" seem like nonessential decoration rather than something integral to the piece, and the same goes for the cases. And while the information grouped and presented is compelling, the glass cases and frames don't grab you in the way other Robleto works do.

The same issue comes up with Time Measures Nothing But This Love (2008) and Love Has Value Because It's Not Eternal (2008), two large, fitted and lined leather cases. Time contains a series of blown glass hourglasses, containing various materials including stretched audio tape recordings of the world's oldest married couple and an 1878 recording of a clock. The other case contains intertwined blown glass vials with, among other things, stretched audio tape of melting glaciers and lovers' heartbeats. The ideas are poetic, but the cases read as the most important element; overall, the pieces seem overproduced, with the repetition and number of glass objects unnecessary and diluting the effect that one would have. Again and again, it seems that Robleto is trying to ramp up the scale of his work when it isn't necessary.

An Instinct Towards Life Only A Phantom Can Know (2007-2008), the largest work in the show, presents a freestanding 19th-century wedding dress flanked by two bridesmaid-like mourning dresses, each sprouting paper flower heads and trailing more paper flowers. It's labor-intensive and ambitious, but here again, I think Robleto has more successfully encapsulated the emotions he is going for in smaller works.

This piece could, however, be a way forward. If Robleto's going larger-scale, I could see his work becoming much less self-­contained, more installation-based and more theatrical. Robleto could conjure more power and drama from this kind of piece by addressing the entire space — walls, floor, ceiling, lighting — and maybe even incorporating actual audible audio? Robleto may well find these things to be antithetical to his art, but he's at a point where his work is changing. He needs to make a conscious choice as to how. — KK

Fresh from scoring a coveted Yo La Tengo album cover, Texas artist Dario Robleto is back with an exhibition that Inman Gallery calls his "most ambitious to date." Ambitious, since Robleto had to build a time machine in order to execute it.

Known for his superhuman abilities, detailed in a previous Inman show, to postpone the end of the world (thanks, Dario!) and incite revolution among neighborhood pets (my cat says, "Thanks, comrade Dario" for turning him on to the Sex Pistols), Robleto includes implements in these new works like a "million-year-old raindrop" (aren't they all?) and recordings of "extinct languages." But the question is: Why didn't he just go back in time and make himself a brilliant artist?

You really have to see this show to believe it, because it all comes down to whether or not you believe Robleto's pieces are actually made with the materials he claims he used to make them. Take, for instance, Words Tremble with the Thoughts They Express (2008), an antique-looking inkwell artfully displayed under glass with a couple black feathers, surrounded by carefully deposited mounds of black sand. The title juxtaposed with the image is sufficiently suggestive. It would be enough to read the title tag and see simply "mixed media" as the component description. But Robleto ruins it when he attempts to infuse the piece with outrageous preciousness. Not only is the inkwell "19th Century gutta percha," whatever that means, the feathers are — get this — "made of stretched audio tape of the heartbeats of two lovers as they reflect on each other." The inkwell contains "homemade ink" made with ground fulgurites, which Robleto explains is made when a lightning strike melts sand, thus creating glass. And that black sand? It's volcanic ash from Mount Saint Helens. Let the eye-rolling begin.

A Homeopathic Treatment for Human Longing, which was on display for the opening but has since been shipped to California, included in its list of ingredients: "last heartbeat of loved one," "million year old blossom," "deceased lovers heartbeats," "black swan bone dust" and (don't laugh) "Sylvia Plath's voice." Is he kidding? Because the thing is, there's not a note of irony here. Robleto has said himself that these things are real, that he takes this work very seriously. Unfortunately, that very claim makes it impossible for me to afford these works any serious consideration in return. (Everyone knows that Mount Saint Helens ash was a scam back in the '80s.) Unless you're a lovesick teenager obsessed with witchcraft and Twilight, you'll get a sneaking suspicion that what Robleto claims is braided "50,000 year-old mammoth hair" really came from Wig Mart. I mean, I want to believe. I just don't. Not for a second.

And what's worse is Robleto's obvious contempt for art — even his own. It isn't enough to create something out of readily available materials; to compose an artwork that delivers a sublime, poetic, even ambiguous, statement by simply looking at it. But Robleto stands in front of every piece, waving his arms, blocking our view, screaming "Look what I did!" — his ego front and center, trumping any emotional connection we might be allowed to experience, since all we're supposed to imagine is the artist traveling the globe, collecting glacial runoff and dinosaur bones, or crying into a cup so he can save his tears (see An Ink of Rust and Tears). Truly, without the sappy supernatural poetry, without Robleto's infusion of supreme arrogance, his work's just kind of boring. — TS

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