The Guerilla Inside Robin Tewes

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By Allie Abeln 

Robin Tewes sat in the lone chair in the Peter Fingestein gallery at Pace University surrounded by a collection of posters simply designed, displaying shocking statements about social inequalities.

“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met?” one poster read.

Tewes, dressing the part of an art teacher in a green, boiled silk button down and loose white pants, her grey ponytail secured with a wavy pink clip, is the woman behind the exhibition. She sat among 40 messages written by an anonymous feminist artist collective that took on the names of deceased female artists, such as Frida Kahlo and Rosalba Carriera, and called themselves the Guerilla Girls.

Tewes challenges social norms in her own way — addressing race and class through art in and out of the classroom.

From an early age she knew she had to make art to feel whole. “When I was the age of two, I remember taking a crayon,” she said. “The fact that I could see a line made from the beginning to the end and that it stayed there blew me away.”

Tewes speaks with her eyes, coming alive when she talks about art. “I don’t remember ever making a choice, or deciding to do art. I just couldn’t help but do it.” She said that her own family’s sexism encouraged them to support her passion for art because they didn’t expect her to fend for herself financially. “In a way, this sexism worked on my behalf. But as I got older and I was a professional artist, in my gut I knew there were more men showing and in museums and they were getting more money,” she said.

It was the same realization that was the basis for Guerilla Girls, which was founded after an exhibit called “An International Survey of Photography and Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984. Only 13 female artists out of 169 were represented in the show, according to the museum’s website. “You think the art world is this elite and evolved expression of intelligence or evolution. The reality is that the same problem is in all the arts; it’s all about power and money and who has it.”

Tewes focuses on class as well as gender.

“I came from people who were highly naturally intelligent but not educated,” she said of her working class family from Queens.

Because of this, she has always felt she was a part of two clashing worlds.

“Actually most of the people I know in the art world, including the artists are not where I came from. I want to bridge that gap. I mean that’s not the total obsession of my work but it’s a large part of me coming through,” she said.

Tewes starts each painting the same way. She finds a photograph of a room, stares at it and dissects it, taking objects out until it’s empty.

“A lot of the process is about looking and staring at the image itself. Something about it attracts me and as I look at it, something unravels,” she said. “I think about how it makes me feel and what it seems it could be. I make my mind just as minimal so I can start putting things back into it, like a room or a vessel.”

Once she has finished mind mapping the space, she uses oil on canvas, adding characters, painting pictures on the wall, or whatever else she has envisioned.

The majority of the characters in her paintings are important people in her life, like her family and closest friends.

“It is a way of unraveling where I came from and understanding the world better,” she said. 

A fellow artist and friend of Robin’s since their children, now 23, were in elementary school, Marybeth Moore spoke about Tewes with sheer adoration. “Robin is an amazing artist and I’ve loved seeing her life become the subject in her paintings,” she said. “In addition to being a an artist, Robin has a gift with other artists. She understands on a deep level what drives them from within by looking at their work.”

Tewes paintings read somewhat like mystery scenes, some with barely decipherable words written on the walls or ghostlike bodies overlaying a piece of furniture. Images often seem surreal and colors are heavily saturated.

Tewes explained, “The idea I’m interested in doing now is pieces that at first glance look ordinary, just like ordinary moments in life,” she said. “But as you get closer because the scale draws you in, the reality or the meaning can shift. You know, suggesting nothing is really what it seems at first glance.”

Tewes is now trying to teach others to draw outside the lines.

“Even with art majors, the biggest fear everybody has is putting a line on a piece of paper. Right away they are defensive: ‘I can’t draw. I don’t know how to draw,’” she said. “I want them to feel that they can have art and do art for the rest of their lives regardless of whether they are a professional artist.” Tewes’ students are told to disregard the syllabus and voice their needs and desires as students, she said.

“We’re in trouble, the world, not just our culture but the world is in trouble,” she said of the state of education today. “I want them to get in touch with the fact that they don’t have to draw well.”

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