We caught up with London-based artist Robin Close ahead of his come back exhibition ‘Selected Paintings’, opening at the Pram Shed Gallery on Saturday 3rd July.
Can you tell us a bit about your art practice, the themes you are interested in and the ideas that get you up in the morning
There are various concerns within my work, but a recurring theme, broadly speaking, is the historical trope of the artist as ‘mad visionary’ or ‘tortured genius’. I find myself constantly oscillating between celebrating and critiquing this passé but nevertheless enduring cliché. I am also preoccupied with notions of taste, and the complex set of criteria used to determine what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ taste, and how there is increasingly no clear distinction in our post-ironic culture. I’m fascinated by how, in an art context, something that would be considered vulgar in almost any other situation, can be elevated – transformed from ugly to beautiful, or at least imbued with a level of sophistication. I also find this problematic, in how it connects with the idea of romanticising suffering, abjection or poverty – and the role the art market plays in monetising this, turning shit into gold.
Can you tell us about your upcoming show at Pram Shed Gallery
It’s an exhibition of a selection of paintings I’ve been working on over the past five years and, in some cases, longer. I used to make performance to camera work, and was something of a ‘promising emerging artist’ – certainly in Sheffield, where I lived, and in the regional British art scene, back in the mid 2000s. Just over a decade ago, I had a nervous breakdown that stopped me in my tracks. I no longer wanted to put myself so directly and literally in the work, and so I retreated into my sketchbook. I did a lot of drawing, which led to experiments with painting. Aside from posting images on social media, I’ve not shown a lot of this work publicly. The exhibition at Pram Shed Gallery is something of a relaunch for my art career, as I re-emerge following years spent in the wilderness!
What are Pram Shed like as a gallery? How was it working with them?
They’re great! The best gallery I’ve ever worked with! It’s a new space and mine is the inaugural show. …Okay, let’s be honest: it’s my shed. It feels, coming out of the pandemic, that things are up for grabs, and self-initiated, DIY projects have gained a new currency. During lockdown, everything went online, so, to some extent, a blue-chip gallery in Mayfair was in the same predicament as an artist-run space in Scunthorpe. I don’t have the technical skills to fully exploit this situation, in the way, for example, another artist you featured recently, Gretchen Andrew can – ‘reshaping reality’ through search engine manipulation. Pram Shed Gallery takes more of an analogue approach, but I hope this new territory, post-Covid, with its new rules, will help it succeed.
Your show is part of the E17 art trail, can you give us a bit more info on that
The E17 Art Trail is an annual arts festival that takes place in Walthamstow, North East London. It was set up by the arts development organisation, Artillery, and is now in its 17th year. It’s a programme of exhibitions and events, happening in a diverse range of venues, from studios to shop windows to front rooms (and, of course, sheds). This year’s festival theme is ‘Possible Futures’ – again very topical, as we imagine a world beyond the pandemic.
What’s The Drive in Walthamstow?
The Drive is the location of Pram Shed Gallery. It’s largely made up of post-war municipal housing, though, as its rather grand name suggests, its origins were a little more bourgeois. It’s a wide tree-lined street, with London Planes that are over one hundred years old, and someone told me that it once led up to a distinguished residence of some kind. More recent notoriety comes from the fact that The Drive is, allegedly, the site of Brian Harvey’s (of 90s boy band East 17) infamous, harrowing and tragicomic encounter with a jacket potato.
Is Walthamstow the next Shoreditch?
No way. It’s too settled and family orientated, plus there isn’t the nightlife. There’s definitely a buzz here, but it’s more where people from Hackney come to breed. Shoreditch is now gentrified to the hilt, but it still attracts a young fashionable crowd in search of excitement. Walthamstow is cool enough for a 40 something dad like myself though, and one major advantage is its proximity to nature and wildlife, with the Marshes, Wetlands, River Lea and Epping Forest on the doorstep.
What have you been reading, watching and listening to during lockdown?
I recently read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, a late Victorian comic novel about a group of city clerks who take a farcical river journey along the Thames. I found the introduction just as engaging as the story itself. It talks about the book being emblematic of a new form of literature, catering for a new mass readership among the emerging lower-middle classes. This was, in turn, the result of educational reform, and it’s interesting to consider the parallels with today’s democratisation of culture as a result of the internet. As a proud cultural omnivore, I binge-watched all five series of the BBC drama Last Tango in Halifax during the first lockdown. It offered the perfect homely antidote to the apocalypse unfolding outside. Listening-wise, I recently discovered the Radio Garden app, which gives free access to thousands of radio stations across the world. My current favourites are Radio Folclor, broadcast from Bucharest, which plays non-stop Romanian folk music, and Birdsong.fm.
What are your plans for 2021/22?
My partner and I are expecting our second child in the autumn, so I’ll probably temporarily retreat again for a little while, but I’m working on an application for a research and development grant. If successful, I hope to spend some of it exploring ways we might break down barriers between the London-centric art world and regional British art scenes. Sounds a little grandiose, perhaps, but I hope to contribute to a dialogue already taking place around decentralisation and fairer representation, spearheaded by people like Ellie Pennick at Guts Gallery. I am, of course, conscious of my own relative privilege, being a white man from a middle-class family (albeit from the north of England, so there’s no real category for me!). Nevertheless, I feel I speak from experience, having not been to a top London art college, and being acutely aware of the immediate disadvantage this puts you at. Aside from this, I just want to crack on with some painting.
Robin Close – Selected Paintings runs from 3rd-18th July 2021 at Pram Shed Gallery, The Drive, Walthamstow, London, E17 3DL and is part of the E17 Art Trail. Opening hours are Saturdays and Sundays 10am-6pm or by appointment. More information can be found at www.robinclose.com/pramshed
About the Artist
Robin Close was born in Carlisle in 1978, he lives and works in London. He studied Art Foundation in Hull, before moving to Sheffield to complete a BA (Hons) Fine Art (Time Based Art) degree (First Class). He has shown and performed his work at various galleries and other venues across the UK, including Site Gallery (Sheffield), S1 Artspace (Sheffield) Bloc Projects (Sheffield), CCA (Glasgow), Side Cinema (Newcastle), Primary (Nottingham), Leeds Met Gallery (Leeds), King Street Arts (Belfast), Candid Arts Trust (London), and The Spitz (London). Robin’s work has also been shown internationally, including at Consortium (Amsterdam, The Netherlands), Colarte Gallery (Santander, Spain), and at the Festival International du Premier Film (Annonay, France
In 2006, he was awarded a three month residency with Yorkshire Art Space Society, at Persistence Works, to carry out a project investigating the relationship between art and mental health, with an accompanying essay written by the critic JJ Charlesworth. Robin was invited to present a follow up exhibition at Persistence Works (Sheffield) in 2007, with another commissioned text by JJ Charlesworth.
In 2006-07, Robin was part of a collaborative curatorial project, with Kate Taylor (Senior Film Programmer for BFI London Film Festival) and Ilana Mitchell (Artistic Director of Wunderbar, Newcastle). This was part of Digital North, a new media art initiative, which culminated in a programme of exhibitions and events at Site Gallery (Sheffield), Cornerhouse (now part of HOME, Manchester) and Star and Shadow Cinema (Newcastle). Other curatorial projects include Arts Council England funded Just For Fun, a live art event at a Chinese karaoke restaurant in Sheffield in 2006, featuring performances by Juneau Projects, Alison J Carr, Wendy Houstoun, and Forced Entertainment, amongst others. Robin was an active member of Bloc Projects, Sheffield, between 2009 and 2012, contributing to programming meetings and curating the inaugural Bloc Members Show in 2010. His most recent post was at Lungley Gallery in Dalston, London, where he worked between 2018 and 2020.
His forthcoming solo exhibition of paintings at Pram Shed Gallery in Walthamstow, London, will be presented as part of the E17 Art Trail this July. He is currently working on an ongoing collaborative drawing project with artists Simon Le Ruez and Maud Haya-Baviera. @robin_close