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Tim Roberts Contemporary Retro

March 19, 2018

Tim Roberts studied fine art at the Sir John Cass School of Art and then at Chelsea School of Art back in the late seventies before taking a thirty-year career break, returning to full-time painting about six years ago. Describing himself as a continuing Modernist, his work for me conjures up motifs and an artistic ambiance of creatives like Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Barbara Hepworth, Enid Marx etc, but with his own personalised twist.

A new way to look at what’s gone before. I contacted Tim to discover more about the meaning behind his work.

When did you first get interested in art ?

Difficult to say when I first got interested – the stock response is to say I’ve always been interested. I do remember always making things; models, lead soldiers, wood and paper gliders, powered model aircraft etc – so maybe that making thing just got focused into painting. I remember doing art at (Catholic, boys only, grammar) school off my own bat – in addition to the general curriculum – as it wasn’t considered a ‘serious’ subject. Going to uni and meeting a lot of people who were interested in art and had a lot to say about it opened my eyes a bit. I probably spent more time drawing and painting at uni than studying my chosen degree subject (Eng. Lit and philosophy.)

How would you describe your style of paintings ?

I suppose I would tend to describe myself as a Modernist even though for most of my formal art education (John Cass and Chelsea) this was an invisible and almost unknown strand of British art. At the time we were far more concerned with current (seventies) US and European practices – Minimalism, structuralism, post structuralism, post pop – a lot of post-stuff. Say what you like about the YBAs, they did wrest the control and direction of art praxis in the UK back to a more domestic agenda, For good or ill.

How did your interest with fifties and sixties motifs develop ?

I became interested in British Modernism later on after discovering the astonishing 1920s generation of Slade school artists – Nash, Wyndham Lewis, Spencer, Wadsworth, Bomberg, Piper, Nevinson et al. This rather undermined the accepted art establishment view that in general and with few exceptions – Turner, Blake, Gainsborough – the Brits rather punched under their weight. Certainly there was a prevailing feeling that in terms of what was going on, British Art was, at best, a sideshow.  For me, the cut-off point was the Pop generation of the sixties who started to look towards the US for their subject matter and to Europe (Situationism, Fluxus, COBRA) for their modus operandi.  I wanted to – not return to- but pick up from where the Modernist movement left off. I was particularly concerned with an aspect of British art that had almost completely disappeared: the ability and facility of artists to segue from one discipline to another and not be trapped in their own pigeon-hole.. It seemed the norm for painters of the pre-war period to try their hand at illustration, book, theatre typographical, fabric, theatre design as well as a host of other related disciplines. I think that this holistic approach to artistic enterprise produced a body of work that has yet to be generally recognised as one of the crowning achievements of any national art movement.

Not quite the answer to your question, but I was trying to distill the motifs and the ethos of that period and use them to produce work that stands on its own – without the crutch of a borrowed and pre-validated aesthetic. It’s for you and others to decide if that works.

When you are creating a new piece of artwork, do you work from drawings, photographs, a feel of a place or are the paintings more abstract. I feel some are almost dreamlike !

Interesting question which got me thinking about my own style and praxis. I have been trying more and more to move from recognisable, graphic or referential elements to a more generalised and abstracted imagery. I use sketches, photos, found imagery, stuff pulled off the internet – anything really that will fit. I do try and use dream imagery – particularly, the lucid dreaming state of falling asleep or awakening – although I would emphasise that I am not a surrealist! Just borrowing stuff without owner’s consent. Although many of the marks I make have a referential basis, I don’t use them in that way, preferring ‘end users’ to bring there own interpretations – or, preferably, to dispense with interpretation at all.
I was listening to Rose Wylie discussing her work with Stewart Lee on Radio 4 recently and she made a comment about the ‘interpretation’ of her work along the lines of, “The painting is the meaning. The painting is the painting.’ I have tried to reduce the amount of information provided by the title as I don’t want to limit the viewer’s own interpretation. I would dispense with titles altogether, but an endless succession of works called ‘Untitled No… whatever’ tends to get on my nerves!

I can see developments in your work when I look at them all together..( i.e. more use of identifiable objects in your later work than around 2009.)  Was this a conscious way of working, or is it more a development of your style and perhaps emulating work that you’ve created that has pleased you in the past ?

I think all painters plagiarise their own work to a greater or lesser extent. I am fortunate in not having commercial or social pressure to produce a large volume of work although some days it would be great to go into the studio and just get on with making. Having the time to worry about every piece of work you make, means that you do. I would love to be able to roll out the same painting over and over again (with minor tweaks, of course) but I find I am not temperamentally suited to that. I suppose I believed naively, that it would get easier as the years progressed, but it doesn’t.

You have a number of handwriting styles, loose paintings, tight and controlled printwork and a keen eye for detail. Would you say that the different areas of work you create allow you to use a variety of skills and interests ? Which in turn helps to keep your work fresh ?

I think of painting as an area of experimentation, of play and improvisation. I quickly get bored with a canvas if I am reproducing something or working by rote. There has to be an element of risk – of skin in the game – a feeling that the next mark could bring the whole thing crashing down. It often does, so it is equally important that the painting provides a commentary on its own history – a palimpsest where marks are made and destroyed or incorporated but leave their own shadow. Unlike other media – film, theatre, music, literature etc – painting is not time-based, you get the whole thing in one go. It is my hope that the layers of marks and paintwork reintroduce a time-based element to the work. If painting is an area of play, printmaking is almost its polar opposite requiring every component of the piece to be conceived and constructed at the outset. The very different techniques and approaches required by these disciplines do complement each other.

Which artist would you say influence your work today.. if any ? Who’s work do you most admire ?

Who do I admire? If you mean in general I would say it’s the generation listed above with Paul Nash being the key stand-out figure for me. Not particularly for his painting – the recent disappointing retrospective showed him to be rather limited if you ignore his outstanding wartime work. Again that show didn’t do justice to his graphic work, book designs, illustrations, end papers, fabrics etc nor did it bring out his fantastic work in mentoring a generation of artisan/artists that are only really now finding an appreciative audience: Ravilious, Bawden, Freedman, Marx Angus et al. Of contemporary artists, I was encouraged by the aforementioned Rose Wylie as much for her attitude as her actual work.

What part of the painting process do you most enjoy ?

The most enjoyable part of the process is pulling a painting out of the rack six months down the line and thinking that actually some bits aren’t as bad as I thought. I don’t tend to finish paintings as much as give up on them. Usually by that stage they have diverged so much from my original intention that I can find no way back, Time to start a new one. It usually takes a while to forget what I thought my original intention was, by which time the work has established a life its own independent of me. Some of course are irredeemable stinkers and stay in the pile!

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