December Mostra 2017 / Meet the artists…John Robertson

This is the penultimate in our series of blog posts leading up to the December Mostra, our first exhibition of this academic year. As part of this series looking at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architect, we interviewed John Robertson, our 2017-18 Abbey Scholar.

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Photo: Antonio Palmieri

Your works intricately blend the language of painting and collage. Could you talk to us more about this?

Well I call them paintings, even though they’re all technically paper collages. I never paint directly onto the canvas, partly because it annoys me that if I put a bit of green say in the bottom right corner, I can’t move it to the top left. So I use the paper as a kind of mediator between the paint and the canvas. Then it becomes about the process of arranging and rearranging, a kind of visual syntax that’s trying to articulate the rectangle. Articulate rectangles, that’s what i’m trying to make, and I’d call that making paintings.

Farrier, 29.7 x 21 cm, acrylic on paper on canvas

Farrier, 2017, 29.7 x 21 cm, acrylic on paper on canvas (Photo: John Robertson)

You will be exhibiting in three Mostras at the BSR, do you think you will be able to see a change in your practice over the months from being resident in Rome?

I hope so. I think being in Rome, going around with an open mind, the city is beginning to seep into my work. One of the works I’m showing in the December Mostra is a large mostly black piece made with carbon paper. I arranged the paper the evening after I had visited San Luigi dei Francesi, the church with the Caravaggio triptych. When I was in there I realised that the only flat areas of colour in the church were the dark areas on these Caravaggio paintings — everything else was Baroque. But it was not as if I consciously came back and then did something about this, the carbon paper was in the studio and it was what I happened to pick up. It was only the following day that I made the relationship.

The interior of Santi Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso is almost entirely decorated with faux marble. It is a brown colour and you really don’t notice it at first. Some of it’s quite bad and I’m interested in that idea of bad faux because it’s really nebulous. With good faux you get this surprise when you get close and realise it’s paint but that’s about it. But bad faux is weirder, like a painting of good faux – a painting of.. a painting of… a surface. It’s more aware of itself as an image and that’s a quality i’m after in my work.

bad faux

Bad faux (Photo: John Robertson)

I often try to get that self-awareness from ripping up the paper, i’ll paint some faux woodgrain and rip it up and so you’ll get this bit of paper that’s pretending to be wood and admitting that it’s paper at the same time. It’s the torn edge that gives the game away.


Detail (Photo: John Robertson)


Could you tell us what ideas you have been exploring since you have been in Rome?

In my application for this residency, I stated that I was going to visit Palazzo Massimo as I knew that they had a lot of frescoes there. I was interested in the point where a trompe-l’oeil fresco gets eroded and the wall and plaster is exposed. This line, this sort of split, I think of as ontological in terms of what a painting is, a meeting of the image and the object and the discussion between these two things.

In Rome I have found a lot more of these frescoes, or displaced mosaics displayed on the wall. They all have this swathe of white interrupting them- the bare plaster. This has definitely been a thing that I’ve been looking at – the relationship between the painting and the wall. Previously I’ve used ripped up wallpaper to look at it but since i’ve been here I’ve been focusing more on using the negative space of the white gessoed canvas. I’m trying to throw the wall into the work. This can be seen in the black piece, which is named St. Bartholomew – after the statue at St John Lateran, which we saw on our walk around the seven pilgrimage basilicas of Rome.


Statue of Saint Bartholomew, St John Lateran (Photo: John Robertson)

In this statue he is holding his own image, his own skin. It’s a bit like the bad faux again, an image of an image. In my work that I have made for the Mostra, there’s this white expanse that can trick your eyes, it looks like there’s a hole in the middle of it. It’s like the white canvas is a faux painting of the wall. I like how this makes the white figurative, like it’s got a depth to it but only two and a half cm, the depth of the stretcher.

St. Bartholomew, 200 x 120 cm, Acrylic on paper on canvas

St. Bartholomew, 2017, 200 x 120 cm, Acrylic on paper on canvas (Photo: John Robertson)

I am still exploring these white spaces and will be looking at these and trying to figure this out over the next few months.

John’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the December Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 December 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 December 2017, closed Sundays.

Interview conducted by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events)