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The dark arts of Patrick Robideau

John Massier

It’s scarier when you’re sober. I returned to Patrick Robideau’s Hallway installation at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center the day after its festive opening reception.  In daylight, the murky passages and alcoves of Robideau’s mysterious built environment were somehow more difficult to negotiate—and therefore even more powerful.

For the past couple of decades, this artist has been exploring the architecture of his surroundings and his memory, creating a running landscape of postindustrial ruins. Almost all of Robideau’s “smaller” sculptures (meaning that they don’t fill a room) are black, brown, or a rusty combination of both, referring—often—to the drab abandoned buildings of Niagara Falls and environs. His larger installations—a couple of them done in collaboration with fellow conceptual artist Kurt Von Voetsch—feature entire rooms and buildings that seem suited to the cast of a contemporary scary movie. We are the innocent tourists who have wandered off the beaten path, into a world that exists under the floorboards and deep in the crawlspaces of beaten-down houses.

It’s not all creepy and crawly, though. At the heart of all Robideau’s installations is his basic respect for the integrity of the past. The structures he makes are ambiguous but sturdy. At the other end of the spectrum from this artist’s gritty urban spaces—but related—are the familiar shapes of old barns, hand-gathered-cobblestone farmhouses, and weather-beaten roadside stands.  Rural ruins, even in disrepair, retain their bucolic attractiveness, unlike urban remnants. Both aesthetics commemorate a lost moment.

Central to Hallway is a small architectural model that can be glimpsed only through crawling halfway into a floor-level alcove. A similar shape is repeated in a much bigger scale as we arrive—some of us breathing a sigh of relief—in the final room of the installation, where a large modernist apartment building stands in the center of the space. But when you peer closely into the structure, all is (again) darkness and decay. In Western New York, we often see buildings and neighborhoods that, though they may not literally resemble Robideau’s sculptures, evoke the same feelings of sadness and foreboding.

There is, however, an aspirational bright side to all of Robideau’s dusky constructions. It’s the fact that he makes them. The creation of an installation like this is not for the faint of heart. This took months of planning and weeks of manpower to realize; it is ambitious in a way seldom seen in the world of hang-‘em-up/take-‘em-down gallery culture. As curator John Massier comments in his accompanying essay, “Hallwalls’ underlying and actual space is almost entirely hidden, as though the work was erasing all possible recollection to any work that had previously been exhibited there. Even more perhaps, it aspires to temporarily erase all notion that a gallery is even here.”

That Robideau successfully accomplishes this is one of the triumphs of Hallway, but it does more than just erase a gallery—it replaces the gallery with a solidified reverie that will remain in the imagination of the viewer long after the gallery has reappeared.

Hallway is on view at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center through May 3.

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