He is widely recognized as a progenitor of the figuration libre movement that began in Paris around 1980 as a reaction to the art establishment in general and minimalism and conceptual art in particular.
Figuration libre is often regarded as having roots in Fauvism and Expressionism and is linked to contemporary movements such as Bad Painting and Neo-expressionism. It draws on pop cultural influences such as graffiti, cartoons and rock music in an attempt to produce a more varied, direct and honest reflection of contemporary society, often satirizing or critiquing its excesses.
Combas’ own work has always been strongly rooted in depictions of the human figure. The figures are often in wild, violent or orgiastic settings. Usually on large, often unstretched canvases, Combas crowds his flat pictorial space with a teeming proliferation of bodies, street poetry and designs reminiscent of the compulsive patterning in much folk and outsider art. He creates hectic narratives of war, crime, sex, celebration and transgression—in short, every phase that makes up the constant flux of modern life. In recent years a strong autobiographical strain has been evident in his work, which was present only on a subliminal level, if at all, in the earlier work.
Combas often seems to be offering the work as critique—of both the art establishment and society at large. The recent painting “I am greedy man” features a densely layered jostle of bodies, with the foreground dominated by transparent line figures, the background occupied by monochromatic figures and the middle ground reserved for two more fully realized figures, one in a business suit and the other muscular and shirtless. They dance in a swirl of text which seems to have no discernible beginning or end but which may be read as: “I am greedy man/ Please shout me babe/ Soul serenade is a lot of pussy/ Pussy gone on the Eiffel Tower/ My Eiffel Tower is long and large.” The lampoon of a society where all are anonymous except in the individual recognition of need and gratification is typical of Combas’ work throughout his career.
While Combas’ works often seem to carry an element of shock or confrontation, he insists the images are meant to engage the viewer, and their execution in vibrant color and bold, unfettered line communicate a spirit of proletarian camaraderie that offsets the tendency to overwhelm, in the larger works especially.
In a biographical note on Robert Combas’ official website the artist asserts his aim is to:
“provoke, that is, to trigger a reaction in the spectator only to ‘invite’ him, beckoning him in and whispering in his ear ‘come over and talk to me, I want to tell you about the stupidity, violence, beauty, love, hatred, seriousness and fun, the logic and senselessness that pervade our day-to-day lives’ ”.
1980 First solo exhibition at the Galerie Errata, Montpellier, 20 – 27 may 1980. 1981 First solo exhibitions abroad, at Eva Keppel Gallery, Düsseldorf, in February 1980, and at Swart Gallery, Amsterdam, the following month. 1982 First solo exhibition in Paris at Galerie Yvon Lambert. New exhibition at Swart Gallery in Amsterdam. Exhibition at Il Capricornio Gallery, Venice. 1983 First solo exhibition at Léo Castelli Gallery, New York, April 1983. 1984 First major solo exhibition at ARCA in Marseille, and publication of the first monograph: Combas 1984. 1985 Retrospective at the museum of the Abbaye Sainte-Croix des Sables d’Olonne. This retrospective was later shown at the Gemeente Museum in Helmond (The Netherlands) and at the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie in Saint-Etienne (France) in 1986. 1986 Second exhibition at Léo Castelli Gallery, New York. Exhibition “Le Bestiaire de Combas/ Combas’ Bestiary” at Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris. 1987 Exhibition at CAPC, Contemporary Art Museum of Bordeaux in April. This exhibition was later shown at the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam. 1988 Double exhibition in Paris: “Les Batailles/ Battles” at Galerie Beaubourg, and “La guerre de Troie/ Trojan War”, at Galerie Yvon Lambert. Exhibitions abroad at Krings Ernst Gallery, Cologne, and “L’Amour/Love” at Pierre Huber Gallery, Geneva. 1989 “Painting & Objects”, at Blue Gallery, Seoul (South Corea). 1990 Exhibition at W. Schultz Gallery, San Francisco. “Combas-Toulouse-Lautrec”, at the Musée Toulouse Lautrec, Albi (France). 1991 Double exhibition in Paris: “La Bible/ The Bible” at Galerie Beaubourg, and “Les Saints/ Saints” at Galerie Yvon Lambert. Publication of the monograph Robert Combas, Editions de la Différence (text by Bernard Marcadé). 1992 Double exhibition in Sète: “La Mauvaise réputation/ The Bad Reputation”, paintings about Georges Brassens, “Aquestécop” paintings form 1977 to 1991, shown at the Musée Paul Valery. 1993 Exhibition “Du simple et du double/ Doubling” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Exhibition at Galerie Bastien, Brussels. 1994 “Recent paintings”, at the Institut Français du Royaume Uni, London. “L’art Italien/ Italian Art”, an exhibition commissioned by the Alliance Française of Bologna. It was shown in different places in Italy. “La Maison Combas/ Combas’s House”, first exhibition of the paintings published by ZINZEN, at Galerie L’Entrepôt, Mulhouse. Exhibition of the first “Tatouages académiques/ Academic Tattoos” at the Manoir de Coligny, Switzerland. 1995 “La maison Combas/ Combas’s House” shown at the Salon de Mars by Galerie Beaubourg. “La musique et touti couinti/ Music and tootty quantty”, at the Fondation Coprim Paris. Exhibition at the Hall du Palais des Congrès, Paris. Exhibition “Tatouages académiques/ Academic Tattoos” at Galerie Attali, Paris. Exhibition at Hotel Byblos, Saint Tropez. Exhibition “Premières Oeuvres/ First Paintings” at Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris, and sculpture exhibition at Galerie Matignon, Paris. 1996 “Peintures primitives portugaises/ Portuguese primitive paintings” at 1991 Gallery, Lisbon (Portugal).
And many, many more!