Robyn Gordon was born in Sydney in 1943. Her undergraduate education comprised a four-year program at the National Art School and the Teachers’ College, Sydney (1960-63), and in 1981 she completed post-graduate studies at City Art Institute, which later became College of Fine Arts at the University of NSW.
Gordon grew up in Tamarama, a beachside suburb of Sydney, close to some spectacular positions of the Sydney coastline: Mackenzies Bay, Tamarama Bay, and Marks Park, with its commanding views of the Tasman Sea. As a child, Gordon found these beaches and the cliffs compellingly fascinating as she explored the power of the waves and tides, the variety and strangeness of the marine vegetation, and most of all, the beauty and the predatory wiles of marine creatures. As an adult, her interest in the natural environment became more nuanced and socially sharpened. She became deeply concerned about questions of environmental degradation and marine ecology but remained drawn to the sweep and grandeur of the coastal edge.
During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, with her husband Bruce, Gordon traveled extensively: three months in India, a three and a half year stay in Europe from 1966-69 followed by a six month overland journey back to Australia, three months in Japan in 1980, and subsequent journeys to numerous other places including China, Vietnam and the U.S.A. Gordon placed particular value in experiencing first hand the great sites around the world, such as India’s Khajuraho and Sanchi, Japan’s temples and shrines in Kyoto and Ise, medieval architecture of Europe, Gaudi’s Barcelona, and the treasures found in galleries and museums of the U.K. and Europe, particularly London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly. Gordon has also explored natural landscapes from Norway’s Nordkapp to India’s Cape Comorin as well as sharply observing cultural practices in the societies she visited. Many of these observations found their way into her work.
Gordon had a long career in art teaching at secondary and tertiary levels, including three years teaching in London in the 1960s and eight years as head of the art department at Sydney Girls’ High School until 1980. Federal Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Susan Ryan, appointed her a Member of the Australian Government’s Task Force on Education and the Arts from 1983-85, and a Member of the National Reference Group on Australian Studies in the Curriculum from 1985-87. In 2008, Professor Ian Howard, UNSW College of Fine Arts, presented Gordon with The Dean’s Award for Excellence in Art, Design and Education.
Gordon began exhibiting in 1980. Her work has been shown in group and solo exhibitions across Australia including: 'Aspects of Australian Craft’ at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney (1983-84); 'Australian Perspecta '85’ at the Art Gallery of NSW; 'Impulse and Form’ at the Art Gallery of WA (1985); 'The Crafted Object 1960s-80s’ at the National Gallery of Australia (2006); 'Sculpture by the Sea’, Sydney (1997 and 1998), and exhibitions at the state galleries of South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory.
Her work has also been exhibited in Great Britain (the Victoria & Albert Museum, London), France, Spain (Australian Pavilion at 'Expo '92’, Seville); Germany, U.S.A., New Zealand, Japan (Museum of Kyoto), Korea, and the People’s Republic of China (Central Academy of Fine Art Museum, Beijing).
Amongst her public works are a ceramic mural created with Jenny Orchard, installed at the Snowy Mountains Authority, Cooma; a sculptural installation for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville; and costume and set design for contemporary dance, with Cheryl Stock at Dance North. Gordon has received grants from the Australia Council for the Arts – a Professional Development Grant in 1982 and a Special Development Grant in 1987; and from the NSW Ministry for the Arts’ Art-Design-Industry Program, in 1996.
Following her first solo exhibition in 1981 (at Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries, with a concurrent solo exhibition by her teaching colleague Ruby Brilliant), Gordon became increasingly interested in addressing questions of environmental sustainability in her artworks. Beneath her obliquely derived-from-nature forms lies a recurrent theme and proposition: humankind’s attempts to dominate nature are futile; people’s very survival requires co-operative, symbiotic strategies.
Another notable aspect of the oeuvre of Robyn Gordon is its exploration and combination of different media: painting, printmaking, assemblage, body-adornment, and sculpture. Her earlier career as an art educator required her to work in a variety of disciplines. Having achieved those technical skills for teaching purposes, she set about deploying them in her own work.
Gordon held two exhibitions at the Wilson Street Gallery, Sydney ('Coastal Paradox’ in 2008 and 'Synecdoche’ in 2010) which can be seen to demonstrate her thematic interest in ecology.
Gordon’s enthusiasm for the life of temperate and tropical seashores was intellectually buttressed by William J. Dakin’s analytical Australian Seashores (1952) and later Isobel Bennett’s The Great Barrier Reef (1971). Gordon shared Bennett’s admiration of the beauty and delicacy of coral reef zones, but she also shared Bennett’s unease about the future of the reef in the face of the Crown of Thorns starfish, oil drilling and spillage, the dumping of silt, the impact of tourism, and more recently global warming. She also read The Edge of the Sea (1955) by aquatic biologist Rachel Carson, in which Carson portrayed the mesmerizing vibrancy of the nature of the shoreline, its creatures and its plant-life. Gordon shared Carson’s passion for the ecology of the shore, and that passion was reflected in her exhibition 'Coastal Paradox’.
'Coastal Paradox’ included assemblages within box-formats, watercolours and jewellery. The marine-inspired jewellery aimed to celebrate the decorative nature of forms and articulations of sea-anemones, jellyfishes, crustacea, brittle-stars, and so on, while acknowledging that for all their elegant decoration, these creatures crawl and spawn and strike and poison.
In her 'Synecdoche’ works, foreground forms tended to be vivid, while the backgrounds were muted in colour and more mysterious in mood. In these works, Gordon aimed to suggest the tenebrous depths, a backdrop of fluidity and rhythms. The title of Robyn Gordon’s exhibition 'Synecdoche’ referred to the use of a fragment to stand for the whole, or to represent a greater entity. Stemming from this notion of synecdoche, Gordon uses the textures, traces, fragments, close-ups and other details of the intimate, closely-viewed world of nature to represent the sense of the whole macro environment. Implicit in this approach is her environmental philosophy that what affects a part, will of necessity also affect the whole.
Robyn Gordon’s work is represented in public collection including the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of SA, Art Gallery of WA, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the Powerhouse Museum and regional galleries in Alice Springs, Ararat, Armidale, Griffith, Launceston, Surfers Paradise, Toowoomba and Townsville.
Her work has been the subject of articles and reviews by writers including Patricia Anderson, Robert Bell, Elwyn Lynn, John McDonald, Terence Maloon and Peter Pinson. She has been interviewed on radio about her work, including interviews by Robyn Ravlich for ABC program Surface Tension , and by James Melon for the Victorian State Library’s sound archives. Her work has also been the subject of television programs and films, including The Makers, Episode 5- Spirit of Place for ABC TV and Juniper Film’s Behind the Sun , on the Arts in New South Wales.