Gallery catches up with islander Robert Anderson in New York…
Rob left Jersey three years ago to pursue a Masters degree in Fine Art. We caught up with him on a brief trip back to the rock to see how his career has developed over the water.
It’s nice to have you back in jersey. You left 3 years ago… Fill us in?
It’s nice to be back! I’ve been quite a busy boy over the last three years. In 2010 i started a master of fine arts in painting at the new york studio school – a wonderful and totally unique institution that focuses very heavily on drawing skills and teaches a deep love of art history while urging you to not be easily satisfied by what you have created. For two years i locked myself (literally) in my studio and worked all hours of the day and night on a number of very large paintings, many of which never saw the light of day, but the best ones made it into my thesis show in 2012, which was very well received. Several iconic artists and writers came, and I gave them all a piece of chalk to write their responses with on the walls of one of my three showing rooms which was painted black (all of the rooms had different interiors that I based on various grand houses in Europe and the US). Ross Bleckner, a brilliant american painter, came with my friend Jeffrey and when we spoke he said “I love your work”, to which I replied “I’ve loved your work forever” – meeting your heroes is nice! Since then i have been painting with the same degree of intensity, but have realised that I don’t need to give over the entire day to it. A very wise professor of mine at the studio school named ophrah shemesh told me that I should only paint for three of four hours at a time, because i have an inherent expression that will become weakened by attempting to force it for very long periods.
This was so important to hear because truthfully many young painters think that to show your worth you have to shut yourself in your studio all day and night, even if you are only staring at the wall. In fact i find that the remaining time in the day outside of the studio is incredibly useful: I spend a great deal of this time going to exhibitions and museums for research, working on performance projects and with other artists, or doing the all important social networking that sits at the heart of this great city’s thriving art scene. Art, like anything else, is a profession and requires so much more than just the making, though of course that is the most important aspect, and i’m fanatical about not losing sight of that.
Your work has always been expressive and, dare I say, alternative, how has that grown now you’re in a larger arena?
Well oddly enough i think the “alternativeness” has become a little less glaringly obvious. For me and a great many of the artists I know and care about one of the key things is that the form of the work be strong. I am of course still trying to make arresting images of things (because abstract art is for people who are either really clever, really inept or complete con-artists, and I am none of these things), but so much of that arresting quality comes from the finished piece being worked out in rock solid formal movements. It’s the same with anything – you can read a beautifully descriptive piece of poetry but if the punctuation and structure is a mess then it will leave you cold. Unless of course it is purposefully messed-up by design to push the boundaries of the form (like e.E. Cummings), and that really is something all of the most exciting artists across the board and in every era are striving for. It’s about knowing what you’re doing but not letting that knowledge control or blinker you.
That’s certainly what I’ve been aiming for in the three shows i’ve had in the last year, and in the new work that I am preparing for my next show in November.
My shows this year – ‘vagaries’, ‘denizens’ and ‘reminders’ – were all concerned with memory, and this is still a major thrust in my creative narrative. ‘Vagaries’ looked back to times spent in Jersey C.I., One summer in particular where there was a lot of friendship, a lot of adventures (one night a certain brilliant jersey-born performer with the initials WHJ and i slept on top of faldouet dolmen under a picnic blanket) and a lot of romantic, ahem, ‘overlaps’. The paintings in ‘vagaries’ attempted to depict, deconstruct and allegorise these experiences. The following show, ‘denizens’, was made shortly after I had spent six weeks living and rehearsing in the middle of the woods in vermont with a troupe of performers and makers, and ultimately touring the east coast of the usa staging our own interpretation of a well-known musical (we affectionately called it “less miserable”). I performed in it and also had painted a lot of the scenery. Despite the title, on ultimately returning to New York I was distinctly more miserable – though I hasten to add not because i was back in the city (I had spent a lot of the time in the woods whinging about how one could not find a latte for love nor money). I think the paintings I made then reflected that feeling by being entirely stripped of colour – they were all black and whites. But the choice of palette also suggested the nostalgia of an old photograph – though I was exhausted and heartbroken, the woods had been a profound and beautiful experience that I still think about daily. A week after ‘denizens’ opened the guggenheim put up a huge picasso show called ‘black and white’. I do not hesitate in admitting that he did it better than me. But i still liked my show. It got stuff out of my system. Sort of. Then my following show ‘reminders’ was a colour-fest! In many ways, because it was the most recent, I am still digesting its meaning. Plus, whereas the other shows concerned relationships and places which had passed, ‘reminders’ was largely about such things which are ongoing, so the paintings were less like epitaphs and more like love letters, post-it notes and warnings (figuratively speaking – I didn’t paint actual post-it notes). I think the return of bright colour in my work is a very good sign; but I’ll let the viewer be the judge.
…And you call New York home now?In so many ways, yes. It’s what my teenage self who would drive to St. Ouens beach and stare at the horizon was staring at. I am totally in love with it. And what’s so wonderful are the people here, artists in particular, who affirm through their enjoyment of my work that I have a place here as an artist. On any given evening there is so much going on that it seems like a near-impossible task to rally together an audience for one’s own show; so when I look around on my opening nights and see a roomful of some of the greatest artists, intellectuals and social icons in America I am deeply humbled and profoundly happy. Every week i have lunch with my dearest friend Caroline, who grew up in Australia with a similar new york dream as I, and never do we fail to talk about how utterly blessed we both feel in having been allowed to be part of this magnificent melting pot.
Jersey has always been crying out for artist workspace, but it’s not always available. No doubt new york has presented great opportunities for a workspace?
Yes indeed, but as with Jersey space is always an issue. In fact, space is one of the main subjects of conversation among New Yorkers, alongside politics and food.
Among artists there is a noticeable struggle for the right workspace – i have moved studios several times during my career, for multifarious reasons, but now have found one (in the über arty neighbourhood of bushwick in brooklyn) where I am very happy. It’s pretty compact, but in all honesty I prefer that – even when I had a cavernous space at the old westmount quarry I found myself breaking it down into little compartments, and i’ve certainly let go of much bigger spaces in new york to be in this one – small dimensions create a more focused energy for me. Frank auerbach, one of my favourite british painters, has been working in the same tiny studio in camden forever, and looking at his work as a child was one of the stimuli that got me painting in the first place.
Gallery space is altogether a different matter, and I truly believe that it has a lot to do with luck; a good deal of socialising and paying attention to the art world help, but it’s ultimately got to be about the work. I have been so lucky to meet the people in ny who have helped me show my work, reviewed it and bought it. I am especially lucky to know damien of eyeheart gallery in chelsea, manhattan, where i have a solo show in early november. He’s that rare kind – a gallerist who is also an artist – so he totally understands all of my ideas for the space and the work, and gets excited as I do. He’s a real treat!
Your work is no doubt getting established. Have you had your work appear anywhere exciting?I think the most exciting place for me was in the web series “the 3 bits”, which is an off-the-wall and totally genius project of two amazingly talented brooklynites. The piece is a large painting of a squirrel sitting next to a book of chekhov plays – a slightly catty (or should that be rodenty?) Retort to an ex-boyfriend telling me we were “not on the same page” (considering that i am among the many visual artists who find reading at length to be quite difficult I found this statement to be a particular slight). As it happens, “the 3 bits” is the creation of two people i love very much (one of whom in a weak-at-the-knees kind of way) and is causing a veritable sensation in new york right now, so it’s a great thrill when people who have seen it come up to me and say “i love the squirrel painting!” I feel like I have fathered a celebrity rodent; take that mickey mouse!
I also have work in some pretty impressive private collections. I hate to brag, but it feels really good when one of your own paintings is on the same wall as something by someone you’ve admired since your hautlieu days (i’m not telling…).
Whenever I go to New York I just love soaking up the culture and life. What would you recommend now that you’re our ‘man on the ground’ there?
Brooklyn! Don’t get me wrong, Manhattan truly is a wonder of the world, but i feel like so many people visit new york and miss out on some of the greatest things because they spend their entire time in manhattan. Last weekend I spent the most wonderful day on the beach in the rockaways, which got really badly hit by hurricane sandy but is jumping back to life for summer. There are just so many glorious restaurants, parks, museums and historic neighbourhoods in brooklyn (and queens and the bronx for that matter) that they almost warrant a separate trip. But, while in Manhattan, I would say that one of the absolute gems which rarely gets enough attention is the cloisters – a reconstructed medieval monastery that houses a huge collection owned by the metropolitan museum, including the unicorn tapestries, which are utterly breathtaking. And the gardens are splendid. It’s like a day in an entirely different world. But with a café.
So you’re established, connected, living the life and part of a rich tapestry of culture over there, what’s next? Well, I’m not eligible to run for president, but… I am currently applying for an artist’s visa so that I can continue to fight the good creative fight in the place where I think it matters most. Americans really do seek social progress through creative means, and in my own way i want to be part of that. I have never been a very political person, but I truly believe that art is inherently political as it demands that you adjust your world view to absorb it. So I speak of politics in a broader sense: the politics of space, seeing and thinking. I have always deeply believed that the united states is where i can make art that matters. But the wonderful thing about the world we live in now is how many ways there are to communicate globally, especially artistically. I recently worked on one of my friend Marie Christine’s walking performances in which one of the performers tweeted our words and directions (“take fifty steps, turn left, look up…”) To an international audience so that they might recreate our route in their own towns, which i thought was so fabulous (although I did joke that I hoped no one was participating too close to any cliffs). This got me thinking about an interactive, international element for my next show, but, as artists are famous for saying, “i’m still working on it…”. I’ll see you at the show!