by Sid Bailey
Robert Site's fascination with art began at age six, when his parents handed him, instead of the standard package of crayons and a coloring book, charcoal paper and a charcoal set. While growing up in a small Ohio town - population 10,000 - set the rather unlikely stage for his future career, it was his later travels in Europe that would provide the inspiration for his current work.
In particular, the history-laden streets of Rome conjure up in Sites "the idea that you can exist at multiple times at the same time. You can walk down the street, and you look over there, and that’s a Baroque church, and here’s some Roman ruins, and there’s an Etruscan statue, and there’s a billboard with a supermodel."
A similar multi-layering is evident within his work, with its tributes to centuries of human fascination with the circus and fantastical creatures. As early as 2000, Sites made a circus constructed entirely of paper cutouts, a large installation of 100 animals and performers. A recent transition into painting still reflects his old fascinations, thanks to his clown series and Dracula series.
Yet Sites relies on more than just casual inspiration to bring his pieces to life: it's most likely the research he puts in beforehand that invests his end results with a palpable confidence that pierces the unwary onlooker, calling attention to the sometimes eerily-knowing eyes and smirks of a painting's subject. Once he has familiarized himself with the background of his painting's theme, he then maps out the work on Photoshop, which he uses as a sketching tool to determine the basic positions of elements that will make up the piece.
Sites' decision to feature trite themes like clowns and animals in his pieces lies in his self-description of himself as an iconoclast, purposefully using his art to tackle unacceptable subjects. His most recent solo show at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art dedicated a section of the space to audience reaction. For Sites, the most vivid response came in the form of a drawing by a young girl, whose strong reaction to the clown series speaks of Sites' ability to play with the subconscious fears and fascinations of his audience.
"All you could see was this little head poking above the covers, and popping above her head a thought bubble with a little clown in it. And it said something like, "What I'll dream about tonight," Sites reminisced.
Currently, Robert Sites can be found teaching modern art history courses at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, VA.
"I talk about making art and the process of being an artist," Sites said of his teaching methods. "I don't want students to look like clones of me...I want them to find their own voice along the way."