Love and loss amid an ancient city

Robbie Steinbach's new work on Venice, Italy opens at Harwood's Studio 238

By Virginia L. Clark
Posted 12/6/18

Outrage, disbelief and despair mix poignantly with a deep love and arch appreciation for vanishing Venice, Italy, as depicted in printmaker photographer Robbie Steinbach's latest …

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Love and loss amid an ancient city

Robbie Steinbach's new work on Venice, Italy opens at Harwood's Studio 238


Outrage, disbelief and despair mix poignantly with a deep love and arch appreciation for vanishing Venice, Italy, as depicted in printmaker photographer Robbie Steinbach's latest exhibit.

A "Meet the Artist" reception for the new show, titled "The City and the Shadow," is Friday (Dec. 7) from 4-6 p.m. at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street. Admission is free.

"It's become a cliché to mourn for Venice in its beautiful decrepitude," Steinbach says in a prepared statement. "But this ancient improbable city, floating on sandbars and wooden stakes, is more besieged than at any time in its history. Climate change is causing rising seas, and each day cruise-ship behemoths disgorge thousands of tourists onto the canals and into the campos."

Tens of thousands of tourists. According to a Venetian friend's accounting, Steinbach reports that in one day alone, 45,000 tourists disembark from cruise ships and descend upon the mere 55,000 residents of the watery city's environs.

"Venice is just uninhabitable, primarily because of the cruise ships," she said last week in Taos. The product of her third (and last she vows) Venice residency in 12 years through the auspices of the Emily Harvey Foundation, this show is an exhibit of her mixed feelings of love and disgust with the inexorable march of a solely profit-centered activity that is literally destroying a centuries-old wonder of the world.

A former English major, writer and educator before turning to visual arts, Steinbach's aesthetic for this show marries English art historian John Ruskin's 1851 three-volume treatise on Venetian art and architecture, titled "The Stones of Venice," where even then, the ancient city's improbable existence was notable.

Steinbach quotes from Ruskin's writings: "A ghost upon the sands of the sea … so quietly - so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watch her faint reflection in the mirages of the lagoon, which was the City and which the Shadow" - thus the title of her mixed-media prints show.

She quotes Ruskin further: "The dying city, magnificent in her dissipation and graceful in her follies, obtained wider worship in her decrepitude than in her youth and sank from the midst of her admirers into the grave … I have been standing on the steps at the door - the water is not even plashing in the moonlight, there is not a star twinkling, it is as still as if Venice were beneath the sea, but beautiful beyond all thought."

Steinbach said one cruise ship carries 10,000 to 12,000 tourists, and typically three to five ships a day dock in the Giudecca Canal, which has been further dredged in recent years to accommodate the "behemoth" vessels. Despite an Italian government mandate that such activities be halted, she said the order has been ignored.

"There have been some meager attempts to have the ships dock further away," she said, but sadly, the swarms continue - "and the locals don't make anything off the crowds because the tourists don't buy local stuff," just cheap imported tourist trinkets.

Steinbach quotes an eerily prescient Ruskin observation almost 200 years earlier: "What pestilence it was that came and breathed upon her beauty."

Pointing to mindless traveler diversions, Steinbach includes another Ruskin quote - "That search for morbid excitement which is the infallible indication of decline" - in a page of her mixed media monoprint artist book titled "Il Miraggio" ("Mirage"), which will also be on view.

Precision is important to Steinbach. Dedicated wordsmith that she admittedly is, she said she feels there is something about organizing systems that speaks loudly to her and thus to the viewer.

"They're both languages - art is a language, writing is a language," she said, explaining how art creates a dialogue between the artist and viewer. "Printmaking is also a very precise process … when you're making art you can share with others."

At press time her proposed exhibit layout incorporates a few of Ruskin's drawings and text, as well as her own digital-based monoprints and solar etchings, which she made from a digital camera shot or scanned from a film.

"Then a positive transparency of the image is printed on the computer. The transparency is sandwiched with a light-sensitive plate called a solarplate and exposed to light. It is then developed with water, which washes out the unexposed areas. The plate is inked and run through a conventional printmaking press. I often combine the original photographic images with drawings, collage, colored inks, inkjet prints and chine colle papers, creating one-of-a-kind mixed media monoprints."

In her press release, she describes her Venice residencies and beloved explorations of the fabled city, a place, she writes, "with water running through its veins. Over the years I have spent months wandering its labyrinth. But it is difficult, in these perilous times, not to also see Venice as a microcosm of our human greed, our fears for the future, our longings for loveliness."

Steinbach has lived in Taos since 2001 and taught classes in photography and women's studies at the University of New Mexico-Taos. Among her many solo shows is a 2008 one-woman show of prints and artist books at the Millicent Rogers Museum. Longtime Taoseños will remember her investigation of Taos's wild roller derby women, Caffe Tazza "denizens," phrenology, feminism, and most recently at The Taos Inn, geometric abstraction in Spain and Morocco. Besides several photographic books, she has also published profiles of creative women in Iowa and Taos.

Steinbach's exhibit continues through Dec. 30. For more information, call the venue at (575) 758-9826, ext. 109 or visit


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