Beyond the Expletive

Story by Rachel Abbey 
Illustration by Chris Sharron

Local artist Robert E. Wood reveals himself through unconventional art and begins to shed his negative image

He stood at the Xerox machines in Kinko's, intently watching the paper coming out.

This was his art, intricate prints created by deliberate flaws in modern technology. Unique. Edgy. Jarring.

Frederick John Kluth, who owns the Open Space Art Gallery, approached the man, asking if he would want his art included in a local exhibit at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent.

Kluth laughs, recalling the man's response. "He said, 'No, my art contains genital mutilation. It's very subtle. You can hardly see it.'"

"He said it not because it was true," Kluth continues. "He said it because he wanted to put me off."

The artist was Robert E. Wood, known to many Kent locals and university alumni by the unfavorable nickname of "F. U. Bob" because of such off-putting comments. Skeptical of religion and popular music and fascinated by philosophy, Wood expresses his brash yet insightful personality with surrealistic art, which ranges in media from pen drawings to computer-generated images.

Kluth says Wood, who has been known to explode publicly with profanities, has become more subdued in recent years, and his nickname's legacy has faded. Still, Kluth says many locals avoid the Open Space Art Gallery, where he keeps an exhibit of Wood's work on display.

"The problem isn't art itself," Kluth says. "It's the artist. In situations where they don't notice him, he does better."

In daily conversation, Wood, a Kent State grad who remains involved in the art program as a senior guest, is softspoken and deliberate in his speech. Looking around Starbucks on a bustling afternoon, he gestures at the people and says he could draw them, if their visit was long enough. Wood enjoys sitting back at coffee shops and bars, doing quick watercolor or ink drawings of the other patrons. People have interrupted him at times, asking to purchase the work, but Wood says most of his success has been through less traditional media.

"That's been a boost in my success - a new medium, a new technology," Wood says. Wood has always been fascin ated by technology, from the Xeroxed electrostatic prints Kluth first saw him creating to his computer- generated "corrupted file art." Wood seems to have an infatuation with the corrupted, both in the media he chooses to work in, as well as the subject matter he concentrates on. Much of Wood's modern work focuses on early myths of creation, where the first human beings are "lumbering beasts" being "spat" out of the earth. "It demystifies the idealized perception of man that monotheistic religion upholds," he says.

Wood likes to contrast the corruption in the ancient myths with the corruption in modern technology. When he was still creating his electrostatic prints, he would purposely run the prints through a Xerox machine with a depleted toner to get a light film of color. This worked especially well if the machine was sporting an out-of-order sign, as they often were. "I would take the sign off and work with it anyway," he says. The machines broke down so often that they were removed, so Wood turned to computers.

He soon discovered the crashes that frustrated most people helped him create art he liked. Wood found a way to corrupt images and reopen them. When the computer tried to read the file, it jumbled words and split lines of color. "I was using the accidents that took place," he says.

Wood seems to remove himself from his work as often as possible, trying to let the art happen on its own. He compares it to the way Jackson Pollock poured paint, rather than directed it with a brush.

While reluctant to discuss the process for his current art method, Wood says he's focusing more on purposeful fragmentation. The images are of "transitional spaces," such as stairwells, elevators and escalators - "spaces that are not places in their own right," he says. He considers these spaces marginal, yet essential.

This fascination goes back to his youth in Mahoning County. Wood says in grade school, he picked up painting with watercolors and oils, often drawing from imagination. He quickly became preoccupied with how to represent transitional spaces. "If I was painting a riverbank, I wasn't sure how to paint the area between the water and the bank," he says. "It didn't seem convincing to have the water leave off and the bank begin."

That's a technical aspect of art, he says, to learn how to "mediate" the area in between spaces by fading and combining color and texture to make the transition seamless for the eye. Now, Wood prefers to use "unmediated transitions." "There are gaps in the work where images will suddenly," he pauses, thinking, "disappear."

His art is difficult to describe, even sometimes for Wood himself. He's not interested in being compared to other artists, and he's not interested in what other artists are doing. "I don't care at all about what's in the art magazines," he says.