STUDIO VISITS No 4
Newport-on-Tay, Scotland, August 2012
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
Aesthetic and intellectual clarity defines the painting of Alan Robb, who lives in Newport-on-Tay in Scotland. A retrospective, spanning almost 40 years from 1974 to 2012, was staged at the McManus Gallery, Dundee, earlier this year enabling the artist's work to be more fully appreciated. Having dedicated himself to teaching over 40 years, becoming Professor of Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone, University of Dundee until his retirement in 2007, his work is not perhaps as well known, as it ought to be. This summer I visited his studio in Newport, an upstairs room in the late 18th-century stone house, looking over the Tay Estuary; and in the garden, a purpose-built studio, by architect Fergus Perdie. Technical skill, fresh colour, an exacting design sense and an inventive and restless mind give Alan Robb's paintings a unique and exquisitely rendered body of work, a rare pleasure to experience.
Janet McKenzie: You trained at Gray's School of Art, Aberdeen and the Royal College of Art, London and taught in a boarding school followed by The Crawford School of Art, Cork for 10 years, and The Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, University of Dundee, where you were Professor of Fine Art until your retirement. Teaching has been central to your life; how has teaching impacted in your own art practice?
Alan Robb: One is informed by the other and vice versa. If you teach in an art school and set high expectations for students and tutors, you are working in and contributing to a very dynamic atmosphere. The frustrations of management and accountability are easily offset by the deep satisfaction of working with emerging artists and helping them to realise their creative potential and talent. You also can occasionally witness and recognise a burst of originality, which is exhilarating, or help some one with modest ability to suddenly surprise themselves and grow in confidence as a result. You can also see your own ideas adopted and given back in a refreshing way. There is no doubt that you also give away a lot of ideas, which can reduce their value to you. But that is the territory.
JMcK: From your own experience how has the teaching of art changed in the past 40 years? In your studio there are numerous “discarded” objects such as the Victorian mannequin (life-sized lay model) and the flotsam and jetsam of traditional art teaching, the study of anatomy. What has the effect of this change been?
AR: I was taught the rudiments of figurative painting and drawing in a tightly designed course made up of classes. Everyone was required to reach a standard in life drawing with anatomy, still life painting, life painting (nude) and one day per week was set aside for composition where you might develop your own identity and get involved in some personal visual research.
The course has almost disappeared and has been replaced by a student centred programme, which is based on individual development and personal tutoring. In parallel there is now a 25% allocation to academic study in the history and theory of art including an extensive written dissertation. This aspect is designed to inform the development of the emerging artist.
Nearly all the British art schools have been subsumed by universities, and this has been a major factor for change. It has to be said that these changes also reflect changes in the visual arts and the nature of art practice. Central to all of this is the development of computing and information technology. Artists have been quick to master this new territory and make it their own and as a result, have created new and exciting roles for themselves, particularly in the entertainment industry.
There is a great similarity now across the developed world in third level Fine Art programmes. Only a few years ago the Academia di Belle Arte in Venice had eight professors of anatomy. They have moved from the Academia to a new building and now only have one. Even in Italy change is present.
My view is that there will be a resurgence and proliferation of the small private art schools as an antidote to the larger intuitional models. They will be more skill based, more idiosyncratic and diverse. They will certainly be much cheaper.
JMcK: Drawing underpins all of your work. Can you explain your own practice and how it has evolved over your career?
AR: A talent to draw is still a prerequisite for entry portfolios to Scottish Art Schools. It is fundamental to everything I do in my work. I think visually through drawing and I can also make drawings, which are resolved works in themselves.
As an aside, I have always used photography for reference and its shortcoming is that you can be too literal, ending up as a copyist, which tends to a rather predictable look. The camera is unselective in its result. As soon as you start to draw something, your eye is selecting, which makes for a unique result, and that is before you look for a feeling for the materials, paper and the interpretation of the subject.
JMcK: You also use various other methods to render an object accurately, such as the projector, a modern day camera lucida. How do these methods affect the process and finished work?
AR: I have always used a projector (now digital) mainly to repeat images and to play with scale and composition. This is not a replacement for drawing, just an efficient way of testing images I might want to use against images, which are already established on the canvas. It continues the layering process, which originated with the use of collage.
(3,000 glass slides were found in the studio of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres after his death.)
JMcK:Your work is often based on objects or figures from other cultures. In the broadest cultural sense, what are you addressing in works such as, Ex Votos, (2008) and The Black Virgin, Cosmos Damian and Doune (2008).
AR:Broadly speaking, I have always painted from two- and three-dimensional references, and images emerge which have resonance and associations for me. All my paintings are made up of many small intuitive decisions within an evolving theme. I can develop a body of work over a decade and then want to start again, questioning method and subject matter. I estimate this has happened, in a major way, three or possibly four times. To begin to answer your question …
Throughout the 90s my paintings were clearly related to the neo-classical tradition in European painting. Cool House was the first major work in this form, a transitional work still reliant on a layering of images but with much more three-dimensional illusion. To make this work, I also returned to painting in oil, the medium I was trained in. It was completed in 1991.
The final painting of the decade/millennium was I live Now which was worked on over a period of two years. During that time I had a residency at the British School in Rome and worked on site in the Forum and Trajans Market. I had also made many visits to Italy and had painted its landscape with more than a passing reference to the painters of the Quattrocento. I had a growing interest in the religious narratives in the architecture and sculpture of the Romanesque and Baroque.
With the completion of I Live now and associated works and two solo exhibitions with that underlying reference to high art history behind me, I was looking for something fresh, perhaps less academic, less reasoned, with more colour and more zip. I was also looking back at my collage-based neo-dada/pop paintings of the 70s and 80s with their references to popular culture.
My wife and I had made two visits to Brazil during the 90s and were introduced to Baroque-Tropical and Afro-Brazilian folklore by our friends and fellow artists Clare Andrews and Antonio Carvalho. This was a very zippy experience.
On the second visit to Rio in 1998 with I Live Now still on the easel, I discovered the Museu de Folclore Edison Carneiro and knew right away that I had found a new territory to explore. I visualised the exhibition The House of Miracles with unusual clarity, which then took about seven years to realise. In 2005 the University of Dundee and the Andrew Carnegie Foundation funded a research trip to Salvador and Rio. I visited and recorded major churches and shrines and I was able to deepen my experience by attending two Candomble ceremonies. (to Oxala and to Oxumare.) I spent a fascinating week in the library of the Museu de Folclore, photographing their collection of religious icons, candomble figurines and a wonderful display of carved wooden ex votos. I also was able to copy sections from a number of PhD theses on Afro-Brazilian religions. (One was entitled The Taste of Blood.)
The linking painting between the two bodies of work is the The Black Virgin of Le Puy comes to Espinasse. The image of the black virgin from the high altar of the cathedral was superimposed on an objective landscape, after two days painting, because my interest in the actual landscape was not sustained and I dreamed, in the early morning the addition of the icon. I had no idea where this rather wilful act would lead.
This was followed by another watercolour, painted in Brazil in 1998, from a small religious carving: The Immaculate Conception. The angels in the background are borrowed from Zurbaran and were added in my studio to complete the composition. Cosmas, Damian and Doune come a bit later. They are part of a series of now 30 small works on paper and I show groupings from the set with the single title Sacred and Profane.
In Brazil, Saints Cosmas and Damian (early Christian martyrs), look after children. Doune represents all children. They have a saints day when everyone carries sweets to give to the street children.
I got very involved in the synchronicity between African deities and Christian saints, and Ze Pelintra and Pomba Gira emerged as my central characters in the psycho-drama. They represent the forces of good and evil of light and darkness and as such, seemed the most attractive to paint.
JMcK: What led you to choose the highly charged South American figures? And more recently an Indian figure Ganesha?
AR: I wanted to explore the nature of religious statues, icons, figurines in assisting worship. I was also intrigued by the various levels of execution, from the crude or gaudy to the very highest of art forms.
My upbringing included Sunday school at the Salvation Army and the Free Church of Scotland in Aberdeen in the Northeast of Scotland. My cousins were Roman Catholics and I have early memories of clandestine attendances at Sunday Mass, elaborate interiors with gaudy paintings and sculpture, a stunning contrast to the austere, dour halls of my experience.
In the first years at art school I was introduced to tonal painting by studying antique plaster casts prior to painting from life. Later I used toys and models including plastic Meccano and Action Man and later again, a portrait painter’s lay figure. It's not such a big step to move to votive figures or even the incredible yet loveable and helpful Lord Ganesha.
JMcK: Your painting is characterised by a precise and finely rendered formal language. In your education what was it (or which teachers) that encouraged you to place value on realism and surrealism?
AR: Your personal practice sits within a context of the art you admire and what you can do and this grows with experience and knowledge.
The underlying influence at Gray's School of Art, Aberdeen, was the painter James Cowie, who taught there after the war. When I started in 1964 the timetable was much as it was in his time particularly in the teaching of drawing and painting. I was well directed by William Littlejohn, William Connon, Derrick Ashby, Colin Thoms and Frances Walker. Very little reference was made in our programme to “ideas” but I wrote a dissertation on “Dali versus Magritte” and my post-grad show was fairly abstract.
JMcK: Which of your teachers and later colleagues inspired you to develop your mature style?
AR: The Royal College in the late 60s was very exciting with a dynamic created by students from all over Britain with several Americans and Australians to add to the fun. I was tutored by Ruskin Spear, Peter Blake, David Hockney, Patrick Proctor and Leonard Rosoman. I also attended a course of seminars on Dante with Hans Brill, which followed my first visit to Italy in 1970. I became friendly with Carel Weight, who was a near neighbour in Wandsworth and spent a lot of time in garden visits talking about our common interest in Stanley Spencer, Edward Burra and figurative painting between the wars in Europe and America.
It’s difficult to measure the influence of contemporaries, friends and colleagues with so much discussion and debate in various academic settings over 35 years. I would certainly want to mention Arthur Watson, Euan McArthur, Ian Howard, Will Maclean, Gary Fisher, Ronald Forbes, Derrick Guild, Calum Colvin, Alexander Guy and Ian Scott. Also Alexander Fraser, Bill Scott, Jock McFadyen, Stephen Farthing, Colin Cina and David Haste from further afield.
JMcK: In your house, which doubles as a gallery, I particularly admired a perceptual work started on holiday (in Italy) and which you finished in the studio on your return. Can you explain where the work was made, the attention to detail, how long it took and how it influenced later works, and to what extent Italy has influenced your work?
AR: I have always lived with my own works, from the 70s till now. This has led to some serious revisions as a critical eye is cast on a daily basis.
You make a reference to working en plein air. I started carrying an easel and large drawing board on summer vacations in 1990 and have made about 12 serious “summer” paintings. The Rome residency produced an additional five works and at that point I considered that this might become the main focus of my practice. This direction was not sustained. It is more like work as recreation but ideas do emerge which feed in. I generally spend about four or five days on site on an individual work and later with some reference to photographs, (mainly for directional light) complete the work back in the studio. The studio part normally takes several weeks.
JMcK: Were you tempted by Abstract Expressionism? Pop was next, hard edge and minimal painting and of course Francis Bacon, which was in ascendance at the time you were a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Arts, London. The college was producing remarkable talent. How did your previous Scottish experience interact with this? Which teachers there had most effect on your painting?
AR: The Scottish presence at the Royal College prior to 1969 was John Bellany who had made a considerable impact as a student and who was very present at private views and parties. Donald Hamilton Fraser and Leonard Rosomon had both previously taught at Edinburgh. In my year there were five Scots in painting.
During my time as a student in London there were a number of major retrospective exhibitions that were important to me: Richard Hamilton, Edwardo Palozzi, Edward Burra at the Tate, Lucian Freud and Michael Sandle at the Hayward.
It was David Hockney’s show at the Whitechapel that caused me to trade painting in oils for acrylic. The colours were so fresh, the images so clear and surfaces so free of handling.
Peter Blake and Jan Haworth accompanied a student bus trip to Bristol to see Peter’s first major solo exhibition at the Arnolfini. I was at the private view of Pop Art Redefined, curated and published by John Russell and Susie Gablic at the Hayward, which pointed up the differences between London and New York pop and explored the wider context. It was in this show that I first saw the work of Oyvind Fahlstrom, which opened another door.
JMcK: What influenced the bronze sculpture, Corrie (1998)?
AR: Its original purpose was as a model as reference for paintings. (I had used geographical block diagrams as a fresh approach to landscape painting.) The sculpture would provide accurate cast shadows and forms, when lit. I assisted with its casting, pouring the molten bronze in our sculpture department foundry during the summer vacation.
JMcK: You use chosen objects in your paintings such as the votive figures, have you wanted to work with found objects and the conceptual implications they can achieve?
AR: Early on as a student I used scrap and assorted rubbish as an antidote to the taught still life class. Some of the stuff was dead and had a smell. It was a route into abstraction.
JMcK: Are there personal experiences layered upon cultural observations in works such as the significance of death?
AR: Cool House is highly autobiographical; full of references to mother, adolescence and where I grew up. Toys for Boys has my cowboy outfit and reading light and so on.
I think that my work refers to death in a quiet way. I do try hard to achieve a beauty in the resolution of my paintings, which might defeat time. The notion of Vanitas is an important aspect of some of my pictures and I do have a human skull which still has some tissue residue left, which I intend to paint, but not yet!
The Afro-Brazilian iconography and its application is all about Duende – death and the spirit world – and how it can be of favourable assistance with your life and death. You can’t have light without dark.
JMcK: In your early works, such as A Positive Step Towards the Negative, you used collage as a starting point and developed an interesting method that evolved over many years. Can you describe the process?
AR: I read, I think in Studio International in 1969, an account of how Robert Rauschenberg was troubled by colour and the colour theory of Joseph Alber’s Class. This led him into using “found” colour in collage making. That’s where I started looking for something unexpected to turn up. You then discover all about layering and a simple way of making pictorial space… as Picasso did in 1907. If you cut up a magazine about windsurfing and reassemble selected pieces, the result will have the essence of windsurfing without being to literal. Fragments of information may be more interesting than the whole image and certainly more usable. Chance juxtapositions of images also plays a part.
JMcK: Travel has been a vital experience for the development of your work. What are the most important places/experiences that have had greatest impact on your studio practice?
AR: Great galleries, museums, art collections – viewing and spending time with the Art that has helped form my practice and my visual thinking has always been a necessary part of my life. I have travelled extensively in Italy and seen a lot of the greatest works from the Italian schools. Following Piero della Francesca around Umbria and Tuscany would be still top for me and has been since I first did the trip in 1970.
I visited Chicago in 1984 and saw all the “Hairy Who” artists and the Chicago and Vicinity show. Seeing Balthus in Paris. Marcel Duchamp at the Tate in 1967… I saw Marcel walking up the steps with Sir John Rothenstein, then director. We drove overnight from Aberdeen to see the retrospective and returned the next day (1,000 miles). The state galleries in Australia, and seeing Fred Williams outback landscapes, and most recently, in Rajastan the painted palaces in Karauli, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodpur and Udipur.
JMcK: How important was it to travel to London earlier this year to photograph (to draw) your grandchildren’s toys as opposed to gathering pieces from the toyshop down the road?
AR: I had casually taken some photos in London of my grandchildren's toy corner and had decided to follow this up as a possible new subject. The important factor that the local toyshop couldn’t offer was the particular natural lighting and juxtaposition of certain objects. I made a specific trip and did a photo shoot to explore the idea to the full. I have been cutting and reassembling some of these new photographs and so far so good, worth the trip.
JMcK: The vast, tidal Tay estuary is a constant presence here, visible from the upstairs studio in your house. Its shifting state ranges in colour, light, reflection, mood, levels of drama and calm. How does nature on such close proximity impact upon your painting?
AR: I worked in that upstairs studio for years with artificial lighting (650 Kelvins, artificial daylight) and blackout blinds because of direct sunlight and on occasion great heat.
I built a studio at the top of the garden seven years ago with north light and now try to paint mostly in natural light. It is so much better.
I love the Tay estuary. I remember taking a visiting Italian Professor across the Tay Bridge and he exclaimed: “Alan, I love your grey”. Turner could do it justice I think, or Claude Lorraine.
JMcK: Can you tell me about the self-portrait (among other things) in I Live Now (1998-2000)?
AR: It was completed at the end of the 20th century. The YBA’s marketing suggested that Art History was of no value. Jacques Derrida proclaimed that “the new art would be found in the gutter”. Ian Howard, Derrick Guild and I were working towards a joint exhibition at the Academia Gallery in Utrecht and we were working to a loose brief or challenge to reflect a quotation by the writer Robertson Davies from his book Rebel Angels … ”I must be modern, I live now… but I live in a muddle of eras.” I live now follows on from the painting I am what I know. Both use Nicolas Poussin’s The Carrying out of the body of Phocian from Athens, National Gallery of Wales … a resonant narrative about the honour of the great Greek general. There is a reference to St Jerome who is often depicted with a model of a church. The portable easel was a gift from the Latvian Artist Union for my “Green” practice. My landscape sculpture is painted on a small canvas in perspective achieved by Adobe Photoshop.
An important aspect is that the artists’ scale is correct in relation to the scale of the Poussin. (A reference was created in Photoshop, combining a photograph of the artist in the pose standing against a blank canvas with the dimensions of the painting, clearly marked. The Poussin was then dropped on to the correct white space). In the end result, the figure was an amalgam of several photographs and drawing myself from a mirror took over).
In one of the posed photographs of the artist the cast shadow touched the body of Phocion. This was taken further in the painting.
I wrote a catalogue note for its first showing which ended: "The artist, with a determined look, the mouth set firm is resolute in his position, which may be as foolish as Don Quixote. Therein lie the humour and the commitment.”