Robyn Field: Call It What You Like

8 - 29 June 2017

Meaning is the currency of art. It's how we seek to define art 'value'. This is true in highly commercial environments like auction houses as much as it is in the refined air of university departments. To operate successfully in the art world a piece must send a message. It must, in other words, offer some kind of critique. Even abstract art must be defined and justified in relation to social and geo political issues.


Farce is often the unintended result of this, because much of time art isn't actually created with these issues top of mind.


John McDonald wrote a wonderful evisceration of the Venice Bienalle recently. Among many insightful lines, McDonald explored the verbiage of the art business through the prism of the experiential piece, Faust:


Even the press release for Faust is abhorrent: "Only by forming an association of bodies, only by occupying space can resistance take hold," it croons. "Dualistic conceptions and the frontier between subject and object of capitalism disintegrate…"  Und so weiter!"


a few lines later he offers one of the better assessments of the art business I have read:


Despite its upbeat subtitle – Viva Arte Viva – the 57th Biennale will go down in history as a lump of mediocrity suspended between poles of earnestness and silliness.


Artists love reading stuff like this. It feeds our sense of rebellion against what can be a very tough system to work within. McDonald taps into the essential irony and conflict of being an artist, because when you're on the inside of the art business life generally involves anything but major social issues. You find it - the meaning - because you know you must. If we were allowed to get away with ignoring the whole 'meaning thing' many of us probably would. 


Still, even if you shake off the weight of artificially generated meaning, you have to answer the primary question. What made you do this in the first place?


The answers lie in the details - in the tiny aspects of a piece that reflect your real life as much as they reflect the 'important' issues and debates going on in your head.


Sometimes these tiny details reflect exactly the stuff the artists statements shout so loudly about. And sometimes not. Maybe you had a profound personal political experience, and this shows in your use of gold in a piece to evoke, perhaps, the tyranny of capitalism. But, then again, maybe you only had gold paint left and you needed to finish all of it because gold paint is so damn expensive, and so you used it... and, hey, it evokes the tyranny of capitalism.


Most often, of course, both forces are at play at the same time. The things and times and stuff of your life combine with a growing sense of this or that political thing and a piece of art emerges.


Regardless, it is tough to create a sense of meaning for everything you do because, well, you're an artist, and a lot of the meaning actually lies in that fact alone. 


This show is titled Call It What You Like in recognition of all of this.


In telling the stories of the work I've sought to focus on the little details as much as on the large themes, in the hope that this offers a more interesting story than a conventional evoking of great global issues.


To be honest, in my own life the great global issues bounce around in the same abstract intellectual space as sport, pop stars, TV series and cooking shows. They are central but also highly abstract. I've never been to Venezuela, and I may never go. But I have painted about it. I am not fully up to date on the nuances of the refugee crisis in Europe, and yet Brexit is the idea within (as well as the title of) one of my paintings.


In my experience, this is the case for many artists. We trade in meaning, but very often we're flipping it (the meaning) in the same way a real estate dealer moves a property for profit.  


Art as personal intellectual therapy


Life is very weird at the moment. Social media, fake news, algorithms, AI, Trump and the Russians, the Zuptas and Hellen Zille. There is a lot of intense ideological shouting, and most of the time the only rational conclusion to come to is that everything is bullshit. But this doesn't help very much, practically speaking. It may all be bullshit, but it still swarms through all of our lives, and we still have to deal with it.


I use the process of creating art as personal intellectual therapy. Simply put, art allows me to explore an idea - a political emotion or simply a sensation I've experienced – over time. I carry out the exploration using traditional materials, chiefly acrylic, ink and charcoal.


To create a luminescent, near-digital colour impact with these materials takes a very long time. Sometimes I can spend two weeks perfecting a single line on a piece. In this time (and through the conversations about the work I have with other artists while ranting about it) I understand more about the ostensible topic, and also about myself and the way I relate - or don't relate - to all these ideas that are supposed to have such importance for us socially conscious neo liberals. 




I've worked with beads for decades and I think what has always drawn me to them as a medium is the ability they offer to track the literal evolution of colour schemes. I see a colour combination in my mind, or in another context, and then I seek to replicate it and watch it grow and change. For many years I've done this with beads and abstract water colours, and for the last six or seven years also through painting.


I keep a colour book, where I past cut outs of different colour combinations on distinct pages. One page in the book might have a picture of a green tree, a brown car and the red sand of the desert. So the page will look pretty weird in terms of the subject matter - but that's because what matters to me are the colour combinations. My life is defined much of the time by colour combinations and the quest to seek them out, understand them and redefine them.


Interestingly, working with beads slowly replaced watercolours as a mechanism for colour exploration in recent years. I start with a colour scheme in my mind, and then I am often forced in another direction because of a hasty decision I made when placing the beads. With beads and found objects the colours are set. They cannot be changed once they are placed, so they often force an interesting colour direction that was totally unplanned. I find this extremely (and perhaps unreasonably) exciting.


Ink, paint and decay


My general fascination with colour combinations has led to a parallel fascination with watching paint run, discolour, change form and ultimately decay.


I stumbled onto this interest as I went through the daily exercise of getting excess paint off my brushes, a task for which I use small canvases. For years, every day I have run the excess paint off the brush and down the canvas. Over many days and weeks and months the dribbling lines combine to create an image that is organically structured while also evoking a definite atmosphere of decay. Quite possibly, of course, this feeling of decay is simply how I feel moving through the world, and I therefore also see the emotion reflected in the running paint.


The flow of ink (in particular Indian Ink) has a similar emotional pull for me. The sharp edges created by the nib, watching the form explode or fall apart at the drop of water, observing the explosions, the crevices and again the patina of greyness and decay... well, this all excites me. A lot of the time it is these tiny elements of the craft that pull me back to the canvas, again and again.


Regardless, I started using these devices  in my art. The sense of decay they create is powerful, even when a single line is running down the canvas. Maybe it's the movement inherent in a running line... I don't know, but I've enjoyed the dark and chaotic sensibility it has brought to some of the work. These small canvases have become a series of decaying cityscapes and landscapes which mirror my mood through time. It's like they form a rich, layered barometer of my life, the measurements tracked over a long period of time.