Robin Costain’s painting career spans approximately six years. In the late 1980's, a small legacy from his father allowed him to turn away from commercial design work and to focus on his painting. What he eventually produced during those years in Vancouver was a small body of work of great intensity. He exhibited often, but in venues of his own choosing, unorthodox venues such as cafés, cultural centres, and marginal galleries. He was not represented by any dealer. He does not seem to have sold many works. Selling does not seem to have been important to him. What was important was the opportunity to express his growing concern with certain issues in a world more intent on ignoring them.
In conversations with some of his friends in Vancouver recently, I discovered that this was a caring, compassionate and sensitive young artist who, affected by some personal setbacks, became overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the situation which he saw around him. His anger, and the growing realization that he could do nothing to change the situation, eventually turned to despair.
His best friend, the jazz musician François Houle, showed me the east Vancouver house where both shared lodgings for a time at 1378 East 10th Avenue. Across the street from that house is a school that occupies the better part of a city block. Because the school yard is on a slope, the sidewalk along it has a retaining wall with broad arches and dental elements that gradually increase in size. This detail fascinated Robin, and appears in a number of his works.
These architectural elements led to the exploration of other elements, and eventually to the use of architecture as a metaphor for the rampant development which he was witnessing in Vancouver, a development which more often than not was motivated by profit rather than preserving Vancouver's architectural heritage or providing shelter for people.
The work reaches a climax of sorts in a series of paintings where the "re-bars" used to re-enforce concrete are used as a powerful metaphor: they take on the configuration of barriers of exclusion and finally barriers of imprisonment.
This interest in architecture was also nourished by some trips to Mexico. A fascination with church architecture is evident in the work: dark works punctuated by brightly coloured windows and decorative elements. Clearly, Costain was exploring the spiritual nature of some architecture. He may also have contrasted these architectural conceits with the poverty of the people, the sight of which was a constant presence in Vancouver, especially when he moved from a studio near the east end of the Georgia Street viaduct to a studio at 112 West Hastings Avenue.
Another friend, Frances Grafton, remembered her long walks with Robin Costain, and how he came to feel that the 'system' of art seemed to have no place for him. This system has many elements, both institutional and commercial, which dictate what art is shown and what art is valued more highly. Prevailing orthodoxies, artistic fashions, trends, official criticism are all elements of a complicated web which is the art world of a big city. To be excluded by that system—to be marginalized by a system which hypocritically espouses pluralism, tolerance and the expression of many voices— is to be nobody. Costain was not the first to be excluded from the system, nor will he be the last.
Perhaps what is ultimately most uncomfortable about Costain’s work is that it speaks very directly to the emotions. Visual elements become reminders of concerns about the alienation of a people from the environment in which they are forced to live. There is no intellectual pretension in the work that would remove these issues from our caring about them. There is no attempt to historicize, idealize, nor is there any clever strategy to seduce one into thinking that by "getting the message," one has somehow identified the problem and its solution. The work is uncomfortable and distressing, and a far cry from the notion that a work of art is essentially a commodity that is bought to decorate one’s environment. But it is work that partakes of a grand artistic tradition nonetheless. It is work that bears witness to a time and a place, where there are real victims, and oppression. It is work that expresses a rage as well as a very deep compassion.
Jeannie Kamins, who got to know Robin through their mutual association with the Artists in Action group, related to me how as part of a memorial service in Vancouver, she installed several of Robin’s works in a room where friends gathered to remember this caring individual. Not only caring, and compassionate, as is evident in the work, but cheerful, a good friend, a volunteer with many organizations, etc. Now it seems that a clock in the room which had always refused to work, started up again and continued to work as long as these paintings were in the room (for about a month). When the work was removed, the clock stopped again.
One may be inclined to think this is silly, but looking at the works in this exhibition, one cannot help but feel that there is an energy and a passion present, as well as a spirit that was not extinguished on April 26, 1994. We are also left with the issues that are present in the work, and these are issues that will not go away.
Roger H. Boulet