The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with Carol Robertson by Patrick Morrissey and Hanz Hancock

3 Nov 2014

PM  Carol, can you describe the influences on your work?

CR  When I started as an art student I was more interested in abstract artists who were free with the brush and didn’t use systematic geometric formations. Artists such as Kandinsky, whose loose, freehand abstraction appealed to me.

That interest lasted through art school, but when I left I started to unpick what I had been doing. Lots of people were exciting me, especially from America; artists like Rothko, Noland and Agnes Martin. I  realised that the kind of abstract paintings I had been making were very much linked to landscape and to a sense of place. I was justifying the work through the place, and not the other way round. It was at that point I realised I was withdrawing from a pictorial relationship with the work, towards pure abstraction, reductive abstraction, geometric abstraction, whatever you’d like to call it.

I started to move in the opposite direction, looking at people like Mondrian and the Constructivists. My husband, Trevor Sutton, introduced me to Sean Scully, who at that time had been making hermetic linear or grid formations. Our friendship really grew into something where we would talk a lot about the work.  As his work evolved he became very passionate about ‘earning’ the painting, ‘earning’ the surface through touch, through hand-made authorship. He needed a spiritual and emotional relationship with his work. He impressed upon me the essential human-ness of the whole activity. Sean was a big influence, as were other friends, not so much for styling myself on their work or their output, but more in the way they were around their work as people, as artists. Trevor and I lived in a house with Roger and Sylvia Ackling for 11 years. Roger introduced me to Hamish Fulton and Richard Long. I’ve always particularly loved Richard’s circle works, and for me the circle has become very important too.  So it was just the general ‘sense’ of being around other artists who I respected; they were the ones who influenced me most.

PM    Do daily experiences, references or emotions inform the act of making?

CR    Yes absolutely. I make constant reference to what’s happening in the world, and to how I’m feeling. For example, I sometimes make what I describe as ‘day or night’ paintings that explore different aspects of my psyche. I’ve just finished two commemorative tributes, Day Painting For R and Night Painting For F, for departed friends, artists Roger Ackling and Ferdinand Penker. The pairing is important as they died within a few days of one another and as they knew one another, they will always be linked for me now.  Making these paintings has helped me find the balance between my light and dark sides.

HH    People respond more now to the sheer increase in available data. I used to listen to extraordinary music in the 70s and 80s that horrified people. Now the general public has caught up. The same is true of abstraction ... do you agree?

CR    That’s a very important point. For me listening to music is a creative dimension of huge importance. It’s certainly processed by most of us in our daily lives. I believe the same is now true in our acceptance of abstraction. There will always be people who want to express their own ideas abstractly.  Abstraction, reduction, simplification and refinement are the essence for me. Working abstractly takes the chaos out of an impossible range of choices…where does one start? etc.  By refining images this way it gives us so much sensual freedom - sights, sounds, touch, feelings, imagination, memory and perception¬ - it can all be there.  Simplicity often compresses information. I can switch from the inane to the profound, flip through time and space, or even summon departed friends. People respond in personal and unpredictable ways to extreme emotions.  My works are like a diary, not a pictorial diary in the way that Rembrandt recorded his life in his self-portraits but a visual one, which I hope articulates first and foremost, my sense of joy in making art.

PM    Thank you very much, Carol

Carol Robertson - Circular Stories

Flowers Gallery

28 November 2014 - 10 January 2015

Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Rd, London E2 8DP

Opening Hours: Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 6pm

Tel: +44 (0)20 7920 7777

PM    How do you evaluate your work in terms of what is happening outside the UK; for example, with CCNOA, SNO, Minus Space and similar International hubs?

CR    Abstraction is alive and well in Europe!  I travel a lot and am in touch with quite a few European artists. I show regularly in Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands, a;though I wouldn’t say I attach myself to any particular organization or hub.

PM    What are your thoughts on education in art schools these days?

CR    I taught for 25 years in art schools and loved it for many years. British art schools were the finest. As a student I was helped individually, one to one, and that was the way I liked to teach. Things got less interesting when art schools became more bureaucratic and a little less creative. I stopped teaching in 2009, but for the last five years or so of my teaching I felt that art education lost some of its freedoms and became more prescriptive.  For example, students are now often taught in large groups rather than individually. They have far less studio space to work in. Without the generous grant system that I benefitted from as a student, they have financial pressures that constantly distract them. Some students seemed less motivated than they used to be and I found myself wondering what made them want to come to art school.

Many more art students opt for hands-off digital solutions now, though I do believe the advent of computers has pulled people back into abstract thinking. Increasingly artists respond to the unlimited possibilities of the internet and to advanced technology: to networking, to events and images they see on-screen, and to an ever-increasing dependence on digital programmes.  I remember when I first saw Hubble telescope photos… they blew my mind… science and technology has definitely added another dimension to my thinking. I choose not to use digital technology in the facture of my work but I do take digital photos for reference.

PM  About systems… Trevor Sutton uses rhythm when creating work. Does this happen with you?

CR    I’m interested in rhythms and measured logic but I’m interested in subjective systems too. I want colour to read as light and disrupt the geometry. I often put dark against light, or use contrasting colours, or close tonal variations.  I don’t deliberately set out to make optical paintings, but I accept that my colour can become optical. It can produce quite strong after-images. I do like using optical colour combinations sometimes; for example, red against turquoise would certainly create an optical contrast. If it’s too lively I might get rid of it.  I was never trained in colour theory, preferring to learn as I go along. I like the spatial element, the push and pull that certain colour combinations create.

PM    Scale, colour, and then facture. Your work has a reductive intellect/sensibility. Is this important to you? You mentioned Sean Scully as somebody whose work interested you… your works are highly finished yet the facture is evidenced in a reductive way.

CR    Yes. Sean’s work has a much looser and more expressive ‘first hand’ touch. But at the moment I’m making a big distinction between starting a painting by pouring unstructured grounds of liquefied oil paint over the canvas and then contrasting this with meticulous over-painted circles that come later. This satisfies my need for both chance and order. I make a real mess in the initial stages of preparing the grounds, floating lots of layers on top of another after each layer is dry, until I’m satisfied it feels right to work on. This stage of the process is entirely intuitive. I try, if possible, to create an atmospheric, spatial quality in these grounds so that they create an almost environmental space in which the geometry can exist. Once the grounds are done, I look at them in the studio, then start to think about how I’m going to work over them. Next comes the drawing and then finally the careful over-painting. The colour changes a lot. It’s never achieved in one go, so there’s a discreet physicality in the history of the surface.

PM  The work we are looking at now, is this influenced by landscape? And your circles, basically how did this use of the circle as a recurring motif come about?

CR I first started using circles just before I did a Rome Scholarship in 1993.  I’d been making circle paintings since around the late ‘80s. The starting point was architecture.  When I went to Rome, there were circles incorporated everywhere architecturally; in the ancient classical ruins, in the churches, everywhere I looked.  The circle means a lot of things to me; it’s not just about finding the form in architecture. It’s more cosmic than that, more symbolic. It has a cosmic relationship with the earth, the heavens, the sun, the moon and the circadian rhythm; it’s the line that has no beginning or end, and it’s the symbol of wholeness and completion; the purest geometric form.  It’s an archetypal form that I constantly return to.

PM  Is that reflected in the fact that these circular lines are fragmented or divided up into sections - or what appear to be codes?

CR  Yes. I’m presently dividing circles into multi-coloured sections which nevertheless still form an unbroken circle. The wonderful thing about a circle is that it always remains whole. For a couple of years I’ve been adding these divided rings running around the edge to create a sense of movement within the painting, so your eye starts to move around the circle in an almost kinetic way. To return to your earlier question about landscape, my new paintings do refer to the real world. Some are very large and environmental in scale. They make particular reference to working in Alayrac, high in the hills of the Midi Pyrennes, where our recent book, Carol Robertson and Trevor Sutton - French Paintings, was based. They record the ambient colour of things I was responding to in a panoramic landscape environment; to the weather, to the time of day or to the colour of things that caught my eye, but I am also recording my mood and emotional responses.  Colour has always been a fast-track to my emotions. So there’s a mixture of influences within the work, there is never one rule.

Circular Stories - Alayrac Ochre: 2014

Light Catcher 4: 2014

Day Painting For R:  2014

Night Painting for F: 2014

Circular Stories - Alayrac Pink: 2014

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