March Mostra 2018/Meet the artists… John Robertson

As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. Our third interview is with John Robertson, our Abbey Scholar in Painting.

John Robertson

Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Over the past years you have worked with language, paper, and faux techniques. This is not dissimilar to the publication of a book. Is there any relationship between your works/practice and the world of typography/bookmaking?

A very good question. Firstly there is a material similarity, in that everything is paper and I buy the glue that I use from a bookbinding shop in London. So some of the processes are the same. But, I think more interesting in all this, is the idea of language and how faux has a relationship with language, especially bad faux. When I use this faux wood technique I’m not trying to fool anyone into thinking that this is actually wood. I mean…it’s a different colour, and I rip the paper to show that it’s paper, or sometimes disrupt it by running a brush through it when the paint’s still wet. It’s more indexical, a sign, it’s more like the word wood.


Since the December Mostra I have been focusing on doing mono-prints of brush-marks, thinking about these as faux brush-marks, and from this thinking about what a faux painting might be. This, you could say, is analysing the language of painting, taking apart the painting to its elements and putting them back together. All painting is basically an arrangement of marks on a rectangle and I’m doing this too but quite stupidly literally, cutting out the brushstrokes so I can move them around and try them in different places, a matter of syntax.

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S, Acrylic on paper on panel, 42.8 x 29.7 cm.

I noticed some of the books around your studio – books of poets, and artists, like Picasso. How do these feed into your practice/current research?

There is always this Picasso book in my studio, which is my favourite possession.


This is a book of his paper collages from 1912 to 1914 and there’s a debt to these really early paper collages in my work, especially the use of faux-bois (false wood) technique — my use of it is kind of a nod to that. There’s a lot of writing about what he and Braque were doing as a linguistic project.

And the poetry?

Well, Mallarmé hangs around, who I like to think about for the way he arranges things on the page, how the structure of a thing can be such a large part of its meaning. He’s into the definite article and he wants to make the poem into a thing. But to be honest I don’t really read him, I read Robert Creeley.


He always takes a breath at the end of his lines, so when he reads out his poems they’re oddly staccato. I recently wrote a little thing about punctuation/pauses and how brush-marks look like punctuation marks. Basically I was wondering whether you can consider a brush-mark as a pause, as room to breathe, and how if you think about all the marks on, let’s say, a Cézanne, as commas and apostrophes, it becomes a really weird piece of concrete poetry made entirely of pauses.

Then there’s the fact that most Creeley poems are love poems. People write love songs and love poems, but nobody really talks about making love paintings. I’ve been thinking about whether this is possible and what on earth they might be. I don’t mean it in the way of a painter painting somebody that they love, but more how a painting could be a metaphor for, or analogous to love. I think maybe there might be a path toward this in thinking about how both, at their best, can really trump the intellect.

There’s something running through all this about painting and romantic painting that needs to be explored and I feel like I’ve only just reached the edge of it. I’m romantic about painting but also a bit guilty about it, I mean, all this stuff about the brush-mark. There’s a romantic idea of ‘the hand’ – gesture as direct expression – which I think is completely ridiculous, that somehow a painter might feel something and channel that feeling in a gesture through the brush. So in mediating my brush-marks by mono-printing them I’m sort of taking the piss out of this idea, but at the same time I still believe in painting’s ability to have this strange force that’s really nebulous and difficult to talk about. There can be a power to painting, and it’s a cliché but I think that power is in its silence, its inaccessibility. So all this analysis of the language of painting is really just drawing a circle to let the blank space in the middle do the talking, like Creeley taking a breath.

John’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by John Robertson.