By ANNE W. SEMMES
Photography by CHICHI UBIÑA
He was dressed as an “art Pope” in an actual priest robe, sporting a fedora entitled “Press.” John Ferris Robben was making his official debut as artist in a one night retrospective “Painting Show,” May 22, at the Greenwich YMCA in a town where he’s known as that on-the-spot photographer. “Now people know me as a painter.” Most definitely, with 70 paintings on view, and they were as vibrant and colorful and inventive as Robben is. “I work with acrylic paint,” he says. “That paint becomes the canvas.” What? “I make sheets of paint with a secret formula.”
Seeing is believing as Robben gives a quick tour just before his show is taken down.
“I don’t title my paintings. I don’t think names make any sense,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of quirks. I don’t know if it’s being an artist or coming from quirky genes. My new quote is I’m like Van Gogh with more therapy.”
We stand before a frameless work, explosive in color and positively sculptural. “I just piled on the paint. Its layered and layered, cut and shaped. There are leaf cuttings in there, and thin stripes and little black roses, a funnel, and light clear paint. This is about 25 pounds of paint in about three-square feet. Someone said to me, ‘It looks so good I want to eat it.’”
He explains his painting process. “It starts with acrylic paint. It dries on your hand so when you peel it off you have these scraps. It’s flexible, it’s durable, its cut-able. I’ve learned to make them thicker and bigger. The paint is sculpt-able. You just told me something. I’m sculpting with paint. My work evolves through conversations with people.”
This artist is improvisational with a capital I. “Here is something new.” He touches the next art work magically rendered with clear Lucite paint and suddenly it lights up with little pin lights around the canvas. There’s playfulness here.
“I’ve kept the wood frame, but I have no canvas,” he says. “And it might be a first in the art world. If it is, then these paintings without a canvas are going to be really, really valuable.”
But Robben wants to show the evolution of his work. We pass a masterful self-portrait done in college and stop before a large realistic painting of a clock. “My family was in the toy business in New York,” he says. The clock stood before the twin building Toy Center at 200 Fifth Avenue with its magical connecting bridge, all of which appear in a number of paintings on view. Here, Robben had his first work as sales rep for 10 years. “I didn’t like it, but I learned a lot. My grandfather was the publisher of a toy directory, and I did the art work for the directory cover to prove myself as an artist.” Hence his painting of that “famous clock.”
That painting launched a favorite story. “For a toy fair I did 5000 posters of the clock painting.” He then signed them for approximately one thousand international toy shoppers. The posters “went all around the world.” His painterly realism even tricked viewers he’d painted in the real time. But the upshot was that clock painting was stolen from the lobby of the Toy Center. “I went to the police. They estimated its value at $5000. Four years later it came back to me!” He didn’t press charges and today the price tag is $10,000, or he might come down a thousand or two.
He cites the influence of the painter de Chirico in his architectural renditions of those toy buildings. “de Chirico had these
long shadows and stretching depth.” One composition has the buildings in a snow globe. “Here’s the rainbow. The color wheel is what I use. It’s also very playful.”
A painting celebrating the imminent birth of his painter-daughter Bailey (who also had works in the show) depicts astral events of that year, Haley’s Comet, the face of Mars and the Rover landing. “I’m all child,” he smiles. “And there’s no reason for my art to grow up,” he laughs.
A friend from a local gallery stops by and comments on one of those canvas-less works that has a sheet of translucent paint enclosing a large red tie. “I can see some Wall Street guy putting this in his office,” she says, “Are you looking in at corporate America and saying it’s much better to be on the inside?” “That’s a great interpretation,” he replies. She offers a title: “Inside Looking Out.”
“For some people who look at your paintings,” she says. “I wonder what they see – is it the color palette, the whimsical nature, the different structure of the flowers? That tie resonates with me because I was corporate for so long.”
So, when does the painter paint when he’s shooting the news 5-7 days for the Greenwich Sentinel? “I paint at night, three or four nights a week usually till 2 or 3 am and sometimes until 5 am. I feel like the spirit of painting shows up at late night – when everything is quiet.”
“One painting can change everything,” interrupts Bob DeAngelo, executive director of the YMCA. It was DeAngelo who came across a Robben’s painting, then invited the artist to show his works. Robben has donated a portion of the show proceeds to that charity for the Force Network Fund. DeAngelo has invited Robben to visit the YM’s summer camp, “to show them how to be creative…he can show them how to be real artists.”
“I’m an inventor as well,” chimes in Robben, then reels out the story of patenting his bamboo leaves non-slip adhesive for shoes. He then segues to when he was a three-year-old making a stick reindeer. “Was I a cave painter in my past life?” the artist-photographer wonders aloud.