Outer space, television, and Royal Robertson came to Baldwin, Louisiana, at about the same time. Fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism had arrived a long time before. Pleas for deliverance and magic rescue—some of the founding spiritual preoccupations of New World African slaves—predated them all. These forces confected in Royal Robertson’s drawn “visions.” He disavowed the Christian proclivities for redemption, yet Robertson reconfigured many of the techniques and assumptions of evangelical fundamentalism into a mythological jambalaya (heavy on the cayenne) of science fiction, mass media, and advertising images (especially those he associated with technological advance or the future), mixed with epically autobiographical motifs of the broken promise, the grand betrayal, and sure-fire vengeance.
With his confident, ballpoint contours enclosing broad washes of color, his linear perspectives more whimsically than systematically applied, and his pilot’s-eye views of spectacular planetscapes, Robertson’s draftsmanship clearly owes a debt to science-fiction comic books, television cartoons, architectural elevations, and a correspondence art course he once sent away for. His painted “visions” transpire within precisely delineated, opaque edges that recall the softly rounded borders of early television screens and the control panels of matinee movie spacecraft. Because he claimed to have witnessed these visions in his sleep or trances, Robertson’s dreamscape itself seems patterned after the television set, suggesting that he may have experienced dreams as if they were broadcasts and he were viewer or actor or both. Like a television set, the, this self-described prophet and seer received, decoded, and projected otherwise invisible transmissions emanating from somewhere else. Second sight/sound site: Robertson’s Farway Land World replaces old-time Israel as this year’s model of the Promised Land.
Visual languages multiplied with written ones in his creolized country. The artist-author-seer-confessor proclaimed himself variously as “Prophet, Patriarchal, Regio Roberto Hijo,” while praising “Eternal Dios” and extraterrestrial cities qua heavenly kingdoms qua next-exit, don’t-dare-miss-it. American Bauhaus fast-food architainments. Also strongly evident were the visually hortatory styles of roadside billboards, storefront advertisements, religious handbills, coming attractions, and the entreaties gracing the fronts of evangelical churches throughout the Bible Belt. (Robertson was once a sign painter.) And the Devil and Esu and Papa Legba must have begun conferring with Dr. Freud, because the ubiquitous, vexacious trickster in Robertson’s world was the artist’s “Unfaithful” ex-wife, Adell Brent, who went away or was done away with sometime in the late 1970s, but never let him have his peace.
Aimed at his community, at Adell and at would-be trespassers, Robertson’s confrontational signs dominated his property. (The house and yard were mostly destroyed by a hurricane in 1993.) The often sardonic signs mingled biblical quotations, “the dozens,” badder-than-thou threats, and intimations of the spellcaster’s mysterious otherworldly powers. If they antagonize you, they substantiate their predictions that you must have a problem with Robertson. Such is hoodoo.
His “Visions” depict something else entirely. Much more than escapism (or even psychosis), they are painstakingly utopian and contain iconography and hopes closely related to those in the work of other African American vernacular artists. (Head up the Mississippi River a few hundred miles, for example, and in Memphis there resides a similar figure, Joe Light, with his confrontational exterior signs and a counterposed, enchanted personal visual language decoded from pop culture and television cartoons.) Despite their televisual formats, Robertson’s drawings—primarily his early efforts, before market forces began to encourage the most prurient aspects of his anti-Adell furor—do not appear to have been intended for widespread community broadcast. They instead illustrated his private visions, and often date the referenced vision to an hour, day, and year long past. Superheroine bouncers may have stood sentry outside Robertson’s house, but on those occasions when a vision includes humans, they tend to be much more approachable, like the nubile orphans, Ann and Netia, kneeling before the goldfish pond (Visions of Times).
Whereas the standard fundamentalist conception of judgment is as polarizing as Robertson’s signs, his conception of Judgment, Fire Dangon Fighting Giant Electric Ell, is wholly interiorized and ambiguous—a snarling mobius strip of scales and vapors. It conveys special autobiographical qualms about the fate Robertson believed awaited him. This “vision” is a kitschy Godzilla-thriller-cum-Book-of-Revelation gone awry; the traditional matchup of good and evil is replaced by a combat between two Damnations clawing for the pleasure of claiming Robertson’s soul. In the Deep South, fire and electricity are two symbolically laden species of Final Judgment. Each beast may be seen as a category of ultimate punishment for a crime: fire, Hell’s avatar; electricity, The Man’s. This piece is a kind of allegorical confession acting itself out through a taxonomy of potential Judgments.
Whether one interprets the figure of Adell Brent narrowly or broadly, as either a cuckolding ex-wife or as a personification of Robertson’s general disgust for a world of illusory loyalties (the smile in one sign, “CRAZY LIKE ADELL THEN KEEP ASS OUT,” argues for both interpretations), it is clear she was the object of his real or imaginary revenge. But he didn’t really confess to anything. He was doomed, he knew, to tormenting Versus/Verses, mentally.
Of the few visions known to employ a black ground, one is concerned with the nature of God (God). The universe is conceived as a set of concentric rings involuting toward God’s central presence. All is in motion: God does not rest. As in Freemasonry or other esoteric wisdom traditions, the spiraling rings—gaseous clouds of debris—obstruct the journey to the center. That center, though is gloriously unstable in this galactic or molecular or Kongo cosmographic diagram, with its elusive God as cometary energy zipping among the spiraled rings of black and white. (Robertson’s God acts a lot like Ralph Griffin’s Woodpecker, the flying, striped trickster comprising similar alternating bands of white and black.) Perhaps God is away at the moment, like a thief in the night, to visit with his favorite earthling down in Louisiana: BACK IN 15 MINS. This piece also seems to be a roadmap for Robertson’s artistic program, in that the rings function to secure boundaries between outside and inside, emptiness and wisdom, and to establish protective patterns of static.
Another private vision (also on a black ground), one Robertson reserved for self-broadcast for many years, is Future Home Size Is 32 X 32. This compact, personal hideout has space for only one occupant, who literally must not be afraid of the darkness. The piece posits Robertson as a lonely outpost, perhaps as a colonist on a distant dark planet (or a benighted Earth), plugged into a rooftop transmitter-receiver. Out front is the white (gray at night) picket fence.
The little house, like the moat-encircled, peachy California ranch house (In Jurney to a Farway Land World—River, Mountain's Old Apostle)—Roberson said he worked in California in the 1950s—undoubtedly signifies in some way on the American Dream of a house in the suburbs. The contents of this vision also exude a certain portability, as if the fence could be collapsed, the trees could be taken down, and the front walk could be rolled up for relocation or lift-off to a new planet at a moment’s notice. In the dark and of the dark, the black ground and the term “future home” constitute an iconography eerily similar to that of other works in the southern black vernacular tradition, such as Nellie Mae Rowe’s hovering Pocketbook, which is part coffin, part mausoleum, part spaceship, part Sweet-Chariot-Swinging-Low.
Devoid of human presence, symmetrically ordered, clean, and simple, the darkness is the treasured obverse of his exterior signs. Blackness was his redemptive void, the medium of life (as experienced during sleep) and death. To Robertson, this black sleep was the Devil’s heaven. Waking up in Baldwin, Louisiana, and counting off the days on his calendar, was hell. For his reconstructions of the idea of deliverance—his night vision—Royal Robertson was a radically and ironically political artist. This vision fulfills his self-image as Prophet. Choose The Devil over The Man every time.