It is important to consider with care Carol Robertson's gesture in positioning her work vis a vis a painting by van Gogh, Rain – Auvers of July 1890, in the collections of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales.
In the first place, there is the obvious point that she risks accusations of immodesty. It is worth saying, therefore, that over two decades she has dedicated her work to a critical balance between understatement and seriousness. Her motifs have become ever more clear and reduced. Her titles, and the information she offers about her artistic goals, have alluded to quietly fundamental themes: the passage of dark to light; day to night; the relation of fragment to whole; of inner space to surface.
Secondly, there is the risk of limiting our discussion of the comparison by reducing it to formalism. If the relationship is not to the reputation of an iconically famous artist, the danger is that comparison is only made possible by evacuating the story of that artist from the work. We might limit comment to correspondences of format, colour range, design, perhaps, through being nervous about making comparisons about content between van Gogh and an artist evidently of a wholly different make-up.
What these two debating points bring us to is a recurring critical issue for artists: ambition. With all the talk today of the irrelevance of avant-garde gambits and the end of the myth of progress, what are we to understand of the ambition of artists and the relevance of history to the making and reception of their work?
Many artists of Carol Robertson's generation have been free to express a relation to art history whilst working outside painting. Richard Deacon, for example, does so in a work recently added to NMGW's collections, Empirical Jungle. This is a powerfully contemporary image, but one which evidences the ceramic tradition as well as deploying references to classical sculpture. In such sculpture, the artist avoids limiting the reading to any one specific image.
In making the reference to Rain - Auvers so explicit, I do not think Carol Robertson is asking us merely to compare her work with that of van Gogh. Instead, she is asking us to think about her personal experience as an artist, and particularly as a painter.
As an artist committed to painting and drawing, she is asking what frame of reference she may share with us as viewers when we try and locate new painting. She invokes questions about how we read the relationship between objects and museums, the current and the historical brought together by the constraints and opportunity of the institution.
By working in and with Cardiff’s National Museum & Gallery, she asks us to relate to the artist's own specific experiences in a place and with art she knows extremely well. She has travelled through her own career with the collection as a reference, Van Gogh included, from her time as a student, then as an artist finding her way, and now as a mature painter consolidating and renewing her work.
She reminds us that she has sought to understand the singularity of the painting in the context of Cardiff, and the way it connotes the singularity of Van Gogh's persona as a form in whose shadow artists are required to stand.
By working so emphatically with the language of painting she insists that we only consider the painting itself, in its own terms; but by making the relationship to the museum so explicit, she reminds us that this apparently pure, modernist method is in fact suffused with personal experience and shared knowledge. Above all, she emphasises that artists must aspire to seeing their work tested by such a context: artistic, not personal, ambition.