Artist Robin Becker: Beyond the Photograph

Robin Becker’s “Ellis Island” is made of three images ollaging them, trying to get beyond the photograph.

Sitting in conversation in the Topanga Canyon Gallery with Robin Becker, we discuss one of her works on display which typifies, in many ways, the themes that have remained constant in her art; It is a room in Ellis Island, New York, where immigrants to the U.S. were housed awaiting clearance to enter the country. It shows a section of one room and the entrance to another, partially visible, a chair in the foreground and a picture of a girl on one wall. The palette is muted, with tones of gray predominant.

Robin Becker, a Topanga resident, has been a member of the Canyon Gallery for some 10 years. Her contact with the art world began at Arizona State College in Tempe, where she studied architecture. But she soon tired of drafting and turned to photography, fibers (textiles), and printmaking. Becker went on to graduate school at the University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale, focusing on fibers and photography, media which have remained the core of her work  to the present.

In a complex, experimental and ever-changing process, Becker prints the photographs she takes on various kinds of fabric, then cuts into the images and uses sections or parts in a collage, then often paints into this evolving image. Printing images on fiber, Becker says, is not confined to polyester or cotton but now can be done on a sheer cloth that you can see through.

“So the portrait on the wall (in her Ellis Island piece) is made of three images of her (overlaid), which gives a different effect, a softness. I’ve been experimenting  with printing on cloth for many years and now I’ve done pieces where I’ve used handmade  paper and cloth, collaging them, trying to get beyond the photograph.”

Becker says she wants to go further with her images, to make a story of them. Her work varies from portraits to places, always suggesting or summoning a narrative that resonates for her. At the same time, she will combine older work with new images.

“I try to make a story with it or create a place you want to be. I did a series of swimming pools and they were very popular because you want to be there. I did portraits for three years and then went into just doing  places.”

Becker’s husband, James Chressanthis, is a director of photography so the couple periodically go on location for various lengths of time, from a few weeks to six months. This  is where she does her initial photography work with the impetus of new sights and their ambience and without the distractions of home and friends. She will often take the artwork further while away, using a hotel room or a studio apartment, wherever she finds herself, to enhance an image, a practice lending immediacy and continuity to her creative process.

Admitting a preference for older locales and buildings, Becker says, “How did people use that space? And how has it declined? It’s sad that it happened but it does. After studying architecture, it’s interesting to see how spaces relate and if we want to be in there… to find places that you’ll be comfortable in. I like older spaces like Spanish missions, I have  a series of those, and Hearst Castle.”

Not just places but people matter. Three years ago Becker did a series  of 40 portraits and featured them in a show at the Gallery. The subjects ranged in age from two-year-old girls to women of 80, visually linked by having a sheer veil over their faces.

“It was interesting,” Becker says, “to see  all these women. But I would cut out the faces and do something with the  background so it was not just a photo portrait. Kind of a painting but not quite, more mixed media.”

At present, Becker is  preparing for a show at the Gallery in mid-April and working with a theme involving immigration while using the veiled portraits in combination with that environment. She has also done a number of colorful works about  dresses hanging in a window with reflections, each a unique piece.

“So when I take a photograph, I’m not just taking one, I take them (of that subject) so that I can collage things more, opening up to other possibilities with the image, the final image.”

Returning to her interest in immigration, Becker says, “My mom’s family came over in 1640 and my father’s came around the turn of the century

so we’re all immigrants. And  we’re all looking for the same thing — a different  way of life.”

Robin Becker’s work can be viewed on her web site:


By Bob Mendel


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