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.
Three 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 skilful 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.