David Robilliard was a quintessential London artist – back when the city was less about big money and glitzy galleries and more about subcultures and underground creativity. If you haven’t come across his work, it’s partly because he died so prematurely (in 1988, due to Aids, aged just 36), but also because his output falls between the cracks of different cultural spheres: besides being an artist he was also a poet, as well as a prominent figure on the capital’s queer scene.
Hopefully, this exhibition of paintings from the last few years of his life marks the start of his artistic rehabilitation, because his work really is utterly delightful – in the literal sense of being full of delight, full of wonder and curiosity about the world. You can see straight away his roots in poetry, with each canvas featuring a text of some sort, hand-painted in colourful capital letters – ‘Disposable Boyfriends’, ‘Wondering What to Do this Evening’– combined with a rudimentary, almost childlike depiction of a face or figure in outline. Relationships – their joys, failures and sexual vagaries – are the constant touchstone. Yet while the language occasionally verges on lewd (‘Too Many Cocks Spoil the Breath’), the imagery, floating amid the whiteness of the canvas, has a simple, innocent feel. Occasionally text and imagery correspond, as in ‘A Roomful of Hungry Looks’, with its array of searching faces, but frequently the message is oblique, as in the cryptic admonition, ‘Don’t Get Sand in Your Boiled Eggs’.
The obvious modern-day comparison is the offbeat drawing of David Shrigley – yet Robilliard’s work has less of a pay-off or punchline. It feels more open-ended, more diaristic and intimate. You get the sense of Robilliard sifting through daily experience and then recording the most vital, most subtly affecting moments.