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Carol Robertson
Recent Painting 1996

Catalogue Essay
Beneath The Surface
by Mel Gooding, July 1996
Galleri Weinberger, Copenhagen, Denmark
20 September – 26 October 1996
Blue Gallery, London
7 October – 26 October 1996

One may say that Carol Robertson’s paintings begin with geometric abstract shapes on a surface that become, by virtue of a most exacting technique, imagined forms in pictorial space; and that these forms in space are subtly suggestive of architectural structures and topographical configurations. The shapes are drawn from a constant and limited repertoire. There are discs and circles (sometimes incomplete, in the case of the discs having a circular central aperture, like the hole in a gramophone record, in the case of the circles, resisting complete closure); and there are squares and rectangles, the latter sometimes with slightly rounded ends. These are items from a tactile geometry of planes. Their assumption of formal definition is never the outcome of illusionistic modelling, or perspectival proposition. It is, rather, a consequence of specific colour and textural juxtapositions, contrasting areas which we read as figure and ground, that create effects of solidity and of light, and which in their turn may sometimes suggest objects in space.

Carol Robertson Midnight 2 1996
Midnight 2, 1996

Robertson’s colour is distinctive, being in most cases intermediate or tonal, rarely chromatic or purely primary. Its characteristic density and complexity is the result of variations on a technique of multiple over-painting. In Fallen, for example, rthe pale ground is of near-opaque while oil and wax paint brushed over a surface of pale green oil and dissolved wax; the circular ‘figure-form’ has several red glazes laid on to a dark green-black matt surface; the vertical line through this disc discovers the first washes of matt oil and turps undercoat. The cream-white ground in The Past has white oil paint over lemon-yellow oil and dissolved wax, while the dark form has a subtly dappled glazed surface created by washes of blue glaze over an intense dark red undercoat, a trace of which can be glimpsed at its edge. In Almost There the glazes build up to give the blue circular form an almost ceramic polish and solidity. These successive layers, of oil paint and wax and oil paint and turps for the matt grounds, and of pigmented glazes for the forms, are always painted to the edge of the contrasting area (Robertson uses no masking techniques) and at the lip of the polished glazed shapes there is always the faintest linear trace, the ‘ghost’ of an underlying colour. This almost subliminal aura invariably works to intensify the sense of the shape as an objective form in notional space. Close to the canvas it is possible to see that the linear divisions within the glazed forms, always geometrically regular, are created by leaving exposed traces of matt underpainting. These, too have the effect of increasing the sculptural presence of the forms.

Carol Robertson Rose Room 1996
Rose Room, 1996

These contrasts of colour and texture play a crucial part in establishing the Venetian radiance characteristic of Robertson’s paintings. The oil-wax matt areas tend to absorb light with a complicated flicker of reflections across a faceted surface, whereas the glazes reverse this contradiction by presenting at once a reflective meniscus and a refractive translucency. These effects are most active when the paintings are scanned close-up, and they contribute in no small way to the complex pleasures they offer the eye as it now grazes their surfaces, now dives beneath them into aquatic and atmospheric lights and shadows. Step back and the paintings compose themselves into emblematic images whose shimmer, a function of these optical complications and contradictions, is registered by the eye that cannot at a distance distinguish its component aspects, any more than it can analyse the kinetic glimmer of moonlight on water. This light that plays on and off the surface of Robertson’s paintings is an active analogue to light in real space and light on actual objects. Its physical vibrancy transforms the tactile figures of her simple geometry into resemblances of things recollected, and becomes the means to their representation as signs.

In much of her work the thing recollected is an aspect of her experience of architecture, or, more precisely, of buildings in places, and of the spaces in and around those buildings. Buildings are specific to their sites, and our experience of them is of a place and a time, of what we know and remember, of immediate spatial relations, of tactile and visual sensations. Topographical art attempts to encompass these specifications, and to present feeling – from the sentimental to the sublime – in terms of descriptive stylistics, modalities of the objectively visible. Robertson’s paintings have a different relation to the architectures and topographies of the places she has known. In them her experiences of the particular – an ancient Roman arch, a Tuscan arcade, the archaeological site of the poet Horace’s house in the hills outside Rome, a room in London, a canal in Venice – find abstract correlations in variations on one of those geometric figures that provides in every case the formal starting point for her work.

Carol Robertson Fallen 1996
Fallen, 1996

These various intuitive deployments, of colour and texture, of shapes on the plane, in relation to each other and to the canvas edge, are composed by procedures that have about them something of the quality of meditative techniques – sustained concentration, repetition, simplicity – into a specific realization of light, space and form which recalls aspects of the architectural. Structures (domes, arches, columns, walls), enclosures and interiors, entrances and exits, doors and windows, solid forms against light, the building’s environmental space: these are the elements of the actual that Robertson represents in an autonomous imagery of radiant architectonics. The magical translation of the geometric shape on the tactile plane into plastic form in visual space that Robertson effects also has topographical dimensions, for we may see her figures at one moment as plan and at another as elevation or outline. These exist in different kinds of space, the one geometric, the other pictorial. In the case of some circular figures this distinction is like that between the plan and the actual concavity or convexity of a dome or sphere. In some paintings the tactile effect predominates, as in Room and Glass House, both of which present diagrams of enclosed space; in others the visual-pictorial effect is the stronger, as in The Past and A Poet’s House, with their columns or towers ‘seen’ in space against the light. In some paintings these effects oscillate, as in Midnight, in which the motif is now a disc, now a sphere or a dome seen from inside.

Robertson’s play with the thematic possibilities of a simple geometric language imbued with architectural reference and recollection is rich in metaphorical implications, as her titles suggest. We experience the world as a succession of enclosed spaces that take us from private to public domains: rooms, hallways, gardens, streets, squares, temples and churches. Our sense of ourselves is of being in or between such places, or of exile from them. Her luminous images evoke with an emblematic directness the constant human yearning for shelter and enclosure. Buildings become symbols: the dome ia a model of the heavens; the pot’s house, like his poetry, is built of intervalled components, the measured structures of art; twin towers, as of a dark gleaming marble, against a bright sky signify the beautiful order of a mythical past.

Carol Robertson Glass House 1994
Glass House, 1994

Robertson’s use of her narrow range of simple forms is not, however, confined to architectural evocation with its attendant allusiveness. Many of her paintings in fact depend for analogical success upon effects that are kinetic rather than architectonic and static. These paintings image a world of dynamic relations, of energies and tendencies that have evolved forms that spin in space, or are held in tension or in stillness and poise. In Fallen, for example, as the title suggests, the circular form seems displaced from centre to lower right of the pictorial space by some gravitational force; Almost There and Red Light present images of incompletion, as do Glass House and Room, read in this way; the concentric rings in the circular motives of Midnight and We create an effect of spin, in the former suggesting a disc thrown off centre by this movement, in the latter proposing the isolation from one another of two spinning worlds. In One Life and Amen the circle is closed, suggesting a consummation devoutly to be wished, an ending that is also a beginning. These are elegies for a friend, and in both of them the most simple emblem of completion and of infinite recurrence known to mankind hovers in a light-filled space. These beautiful paintings, with their icon-like directness of address, their symbolic probity and lack of emotive rhetoric, demonstrate perfectly the expressive power of Robertson’s quiet art.

Text © Mel Gooding 1996
Images © Carol Robertson 1996

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© 2017 Carol Robertson