As we approach the June 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. Our penultimate interview is with John Robertson, our Abbey Scholar in Painting.
Your practice seems to have changed during the past months. You have introduced into your work references to the Italian 15th Century. Leaves, referring to Primavera by Botticelli, which you saw in Galleria degli Uffizi, now feature in your work. Tell us more…
The leaves are not specifically from Botticelli. I made the first leaf painting at Easter, when some leaves literally blew into the studio from outside. It was after this that I visited Florence and saw the Botticelli paintings including Primavera. You can definitely go to Botticelli from the leaf works if you want, but you can also go to someone like Ben Nicholson, to a kind of white modernist relief, or to a tradition of botany studies. I like this kind of openness in work, something you can travel with but not necessarily to a fixed destination.
That said, I do think going to Florence changed my palette, those Botticelli’s and the Fra Angelico’s, everything kind of greyed or ochre-d out when I came back. There’s a closer tonality in my work now, it’s less graphic and more…hmmm…. I don’t know… misty.
For this June Mostra what work will you present?
For my final three months I made 20 A3 panels and I have been ploughing through them. This time things are a lot more straight forward, a lot more like ‘straight-up’ painting.
What made you choose this specific size and scale?
I made this decision after the last Mostra. I wanted to use the last term to make a series of studies because I’d made a couple right at the end of the last one that were becoming ‘painterly’ somehow. I had a sense that they could go somewhere else, that they could feel more like paintings than collages. So it was something I wanted to try to work out, and I wanted the working out to be on the surface of the works, so I had this idea to make a group of small paintings and keep covering them as I go. There’s a lot more texture on the new works as a result, more layers, you can see that there’s paper underneath the final image that has been covered over. I didn’t see any reason to make them bigger, and I like the smallness actually, they’re kind of compressed or something, they’re intimate, you have to get close. Also they feel like pages, and I like that too.
You have now been in Rome for eight months. What effect has this experience had on your work?
Increasingly I’ve realised that it’s the studio time that has made the biggest difference to my practice. A few months in I started cutting out brush strokes and I felt really weird about it, it’s so amateur and crafty, a bit Blue Peter. But it led to making these small works that are more complicated with complex layering. This change has really just come from being able to have so much studio time. There’s something about time in all this, a slower making that demands a longer looking, and really just having enough of a rhythm in the studio that the work gets a momentum of its own and kind of takes over. It’s a little animistic actually, and you sound like a bit of a lunatic, but really it feels like I’m just trying to listen to what the work wants, like there’s an image there already, hiding in these bits of paper, and i’m just trying to let it exist.
Then there’s the time the leaves blew in the studio at Easter, and the day after when Tomaso visited and wrote his email address on a piece of paper.
Of course Rome has affected the work too, and it’s possible to link my work and practice to it. I found out that in the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria (with the Bernini Ecstasy of Saint Teresa) all the marble pillars that look like one piece of marble are actually collaged pieces of marble, cut along the veining so that you can’t tell, and patch-worked to look like one piece. This is a pretty common practice, and it’s easy enough to see how that’s connected to my work. And the paintings themselves are a lot more baroque, I mean, everything’s a flourish or an arabesque, they could easily be close-up bits of a baroque frame or something.
So yes, Rome is there, in the work. But, I mean…so is the courtyard of the BSR, all those cigarette breaks, moving around the green plastic chairs to sit in the sun or shade depending on the weather, the poetry I’m reading, songs I’m listening to, friends I’ve made, red wine, for sure red wine, I even have some works that are pieces of paper I’ve used to mop up red wine spillages in the studio after hours, the studio, it’s all happened in the studio. It’s all in there somehow, Rome, the BSR, the whole thing.
John’s work will be exhibited alongside the six other resident artists in the June Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 June 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 June 2018, closed Sundays.
Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by John Robertson.