From here to here

Saul Roberston
Until 8th March, Lamb Gallery, Tower Building, University of Dundee

Amidst the dark wood-panelled spaces of the Tower Foyer mezzanine, and amongst the movement of people busily rushing to somewhere else, there is a little dream-like oasis of calm if you care to stop. From here to here is a small retrospective of Saul Roberston's work, spanning the highly detailed realism of his direct observational studies, the polish of his humorously-titled graphite drawings, and his more recent work suggestive of the landscapes of dreams and of the unconscious.

robertson 1Three very different paintings mark this trajectory. Bedroom, which Robertson painted as a student or soon after, demonstrates the artist's skill in draughtsmanship; everyday objects clutter the surfaces of an untidy (student?) bedroom complete with an unmade bed and curtains drawn against the bright sunshine outside. Robertson's technical skills are evident; each object is realised meticulously, crowding the picture and demanding our attention. Yet in its tonal range of colours, the painting - despite its surface realism - is oddly flat and much less adventurous than his later work. As a sharp-edged technical study of painterly observation, Bedroom fulfils its brief but it contains none of the character that marks Robertson's more mature work.

The End of Youth dates from Robertson's middle period and is, among other things, a very skillful self-portrait of the artist, bare-chested, right hand holding a rusty can and left hand positioned across his breast. Folded sheets of paper or cloth, some singed and on which some faint figures of (toy?) soldiers on parade and also a soldier's head are drawn, form a backdrop. Eggs, coins and burning matches - smoke emanating - orbit his head, forming a circular air trail. The main figure looks down as if deep in, and inspired by, his own private thoughts and ideas. The face, sharp lines and stylised hair curls, is reminiscent of Lucian Freud's early portraits. The tonal quality and shades of colour in the face, clenched hands and tin, stand out in contrast to the torso which, although well-crafted, is more muted and recedes by comparison. This is a contemplative piece and viewers are invited to speculate on some of the personal and abstract symbols used.

Westward, a recent painting, depicts a wonderfully eclectic assortment of everyday items - cups, butter knives, scissors, sugar cubes, pencils and paintbrushes, bread slices, baguettes and waffles - all architecturally assembled into a house. The structure teeters on the edge of a cliff, with only a seemingly fragile arrangement of straws preventing it from slipping off the cliff-edge into oblivion. The cityscape below is suggested by the grids of many small bright, glowing lights; the horizon is a pale yellow band shading into blue. A small figure can be seen balancing on the outer edge of the straw scaffolding. The small figures in many of Robertson's recent paintings lend his fantastical structures monumental scale. Indeed, Westward's strange house is massive next to the tiny man, its size accentuated by the shadows it throws across the ground, thus adding to the painting's surreal and dreamlike ambience. If intrinsically unstable, the solidity this impossible house gives off is due, perhaps, to its clean and straight lines and also to the small figure who stands perfectly balanced on its outermost edge. Westward seems poised between reality (the city below) and dreams (the house).

Much of Robertson's later work seems to have a childlike, dreamlike quality even when some of the objects in them are painted with a contrary realism; a delicate tension exists between the suggestive symbolism that speaks the unconscious and the clean lines of the mundane. The overall effect is to accentuate both the felt reality and the impossibility of the image. By making the house the focal point of the image rather than the small figure in Westward, the artist encourages us to focus more on art (and ideas) than on the artist as in, for example, The End of Youth; the individual is, perhaps, tiny when compared with the monumentality of art or the unconscious. In this, Robertson's exhibition offers a slyly humorous, surreal, wonderfully detailed (if admittedly puzzling) iconography that invites contemplation.

Sian MacFarlane
Gail Low

(Review of 'From Here to Here' solo exhibtion 2014)
 

'Saul Robertson's 'A House by the Sea' shows a construction built from children's wooden blocks, teacups, sugar cubes and ice-cream cones, with a roof of toast and Scrabble tiles.  The two occupants look out to sea, standing solemnly hand-in-hand on a domino.  It's beatifully executed, and a little foreboding too.'

Susan Mansfield, The Scotsman Newspaper. 


'Saul Robertson's 'The Gale' is a beautiful little painting of three windswept figures seen in a dream against the sea.'

Duncan Macmillan, The Scotsman Newspaper.


'Technically highly-skillled'

'Tour de force, magnificent painting'

The Herald Newspaper


'Mastery of light and shade' 

The Times Newspaper


An eyot is a small island found on a river.                                                                          With associations of stillness amid passing currents and immutability when all around is change, this is a useful image to have in mind when thinking about paintings generally and their relationship to the surrounding world.

But it has more specific resonances as well.

The river is perhaps the most universal symbol of time. Time is what I think my
subject is. Not 'time' in the sense of capturing a fleeting moment, like a snapshot.
Rather, the chosen objects and themes having symbolic properties and associations
which are to do with time. I try to avoid the obvious signifiers of time and its effects
and tend towards those which are more oblique. Some of the symbols which are to
be found within this exhibition include:

- Flora, the Roman goddess of spring, along with her distant relative and archetype of
the ages: the green man. Both are optimistic images of renewal.
- The letter writer addressing herself to an unknown moment in the future, when the
present moment will have passed and the letter will be read.
- The image of the self as both a recorder and a projector. The face records what
time looks like, whilst the gestures and objects speak of how this feels.
- Objects arranged to symbolise the linear and the cyclical.Although these are
opposing models of time, I sometimes think that, paradoxically, we need both the
finality of the arrow and the endlessness of the circle.
- A still life reconstruction of Bramante's Tempietto improbably standing in a
landscape, on the edge of a river. This is a metaphorical visual representation of
something that can only really exist in the mind (a construct).The temple is also,
of course, a place of worship, and we do at times deify our constructs.

 

This is a fairly diverse list, which perhaps establishes a subject but also begs the
question: 'To what end?'

Since each painting is different and in some senses unique, we must perhaps look
to the overall mood of these works and what might be termed their contemplative
nature, if we are to get a sense of their general thrust. In as much as there is ever
any one 'meaning' where a group of paintings is concerned, I suggest it is to be
found somewhere in this contemplative, reflective mood. 'The subject as something
to reflect upon', hardly a great insight one might say, but we are too apt to allow our
relationship with time to become often little more than a reflex response: counting,
measuring, atomising, digitising, when perhaps there is something to be said for a
more thoughtful approach.

My attitude is not militant, though. I don't believe wristwatches are manacles, nor feel
Augustus's presence over this summer month as being particularly oppressive and it is
no accident that this exhibition falls short of offering an ideology. I think that all these
paintings are meant to be, is a gentle sort of painterly advocacy, or a reminder, that
we can feel time and think about what it means, as well as measure it.

So, to return to where we began, these paintings are eyots in two senses. Literally,
they are static images amid the movement of the world, and metaphorically, they offer
a small contemplative space.The viewer can enter this space and hopefully be offered
some sort of islander's perspective on the river-like sequence of events (the flow of
time), a two handed thing, in both its pitiless and its generous aspects.


Saul Robertson

August 2010

 

(catalogue essay for "Eyots - Paintings and drawings by Saul Robertson from the past 10 years" at The Lillie Art Gallery)


On a shelf in my studio, there is a wooden arrow.                                                 When I look at it I sometimes like to think that it simply arrived there, that one afternoon it just glided in through the open window and came to rest on the shelf among the other objects that have acquired (along with a thick coat of dust) some meaning to me.
I picture an imaginary trajectory: soaring, climbing, and levelling off, a delicate tilt forward and then the fall.
The line this journey carves in the air.
The wooden arrow is a beautiful object; its form ends in a sharp steel point which, although dark, shines in the light, and draws attention.

I remember, at a point in the past, having to wear a striped shirt and a plastic rectangle bearing someone else's name (Simon). For some reason the memory of those long days spent staring through reinforced glass at a forecourt, at pumps, and banal asphalt surfaces is particularly persistent, arriving to interrupt my thoughts at irregular intervals, unbidden.
I have yet to make a painting based on this imagery, though I think the reason the memory recurs is that it allows the general associations of a petrol station: journeys, stopping off, refuelling etc, to become metaphorical with regard to a period in a person's life.

I mention these things to try to explain how my thought process works.
How something like the idea of a petrol station can be applied to a new purpose, or how an arrow can represent a life span.

I think most of my paintings are about time in one way or another, time is certainly what I think about more than anything else.

I try to think about how time relates to the internal emotional life, to the stream of emotions.
Or maybe that stream could become a sea?
And perhaps there would be something lunar up in there in the sky?
Pulling the tide, reflected clearly in calm waters, or stretched and distorted in choppy seas.

So, reflections then.

Although one thing that might be said of reflections, sitting there on the surface, is that they do tend to be more sombre than that which they reflect.


Saul Robertson

 

April 2008

(catalogue essay for "Soliloquy" at Thompson's Gallery)