Tom Robinson on his recent work

An email to fellow artist David Cooper
October 2023



So good to have you in the studio this week and to see the recent work through your eyes. It’s always welcome to have a visitor: for the relationship between myself and the work and the space to be readjusted. This email is an attempt to put some of what we spoke about into words. To try to explain to you what I’ve been thinking about over the past few months, and through that, understand it better myself.

We talked about the speed of paint. It seems that thin paint feels quick, whereas paint films interrupted (by wrinkles, coagulation, ridges, blisters) put a brake on the eye as it traverses the surface. Some of the paint has become very thin, a skatey rink of colour (our friends in Berlin use paint so thin it’s been reduced to stain. They think this quality of paint renders it at its most luminous). In opposition to the thinness, I started putting much more solid bits of paint on the surface of small paintings, needing to do something to move them from a state that seemed too even. Gradually these interventions appeared in the larger paintings too. Here they serve the same purpose, but also act like map markers, or reference points. Landmarks for the eye to orientate and return to. Often the colour of these introduced pieces of paint, interrupting their surroundings, chromatically as well as in relief, establishes, or proposes, a new key. Coming from somewhere else, with its own particular way of reflecting light, it sets up chain reactions around itself. As well as the physical properties of what thin paint does, and what thick paint does, maybe what is more significant is the interval between them. Together they represent a polarity. How the thick/thin areas mesh together, the net they form, seems more significant than what they each do separately. In that assault course of ups and downs, in which different, conflicting, areas find some kind of pact, the painting metamorphoses into something else. Perhaps that is what all active polarities do; they create another relation, and it’s the sum and interplay of relations that tip a painting over into something else.

We spoke about the impact of paintings. What it feels like to enter a room full of them. The push and pull of different objects. How some work asks questions or talks back. I’ve found I’m interested in painting that presents a kind of logical dumb show. You look at a piece of yellow and a piece of white and implicitly the eye asks, do they speak? Are they in such interplay that they intercommunicate? Good work speaks within itself. The fluidity, volume, chain reaction of this speech is the level of the painting’s power. It’s as if the painting is arrived at by the force – and logic – of its own inner momentum. It’s not willed. But made by following a line of logic dictated by a growing intelligence resident in the thing itself. I believe that a painting has a mind.

I have seen this kind of plastic intelligence in terms of voices. Two marks, side by side, create a relationship. The ratio: the interval, between them, constitutes a statement. That statement has a voice. It sounds like something. It points to this, or that. These relationships accrue. The surface becomes flooded with voices. Some close, some hailing each other across the painting. Some of the voices sing sweetly, others grate. They seem to have the quality of something minor: they gambol. Eventually, the voices at play arrange themselves into a constellation that makes sense. They arrive at a formulation that has a voice its own. For this to work the voices have to talk. And if there is a concert, comprised of these relations both dissonant and in harmony, they make some sort of overarching major, a call to the eye.

I’m looking forward to seeing you again in a month’s time. It’d be good to speak about the Guston show. To talk about the way he models in his painting and how that connects him, in my eyes, so strongly to nineteenth century history painting. I felt simultaneously struck by his genius and aware of how differently I want to make my own paintings. I am drawn to paintings that connect across their surface, a patchwork of interconnected facets joined – held – together. I see this project as one that allows for the metaphorical jump from an image that might say light, to one that makes light.

All the very best, Tom


David Cooper’s response to Tom Robinson


I think the draw for me is in what lies beneath.

When viewing your works, I find myself moving, angling to see what exists behind. My physical self sways and my eyes reach to pull the painting open. The works are cavernous; and I am walking inside them, in the dark with my arms outstretched. This is a total contradiction – as your works are a riot of colour and tones. However, on approaching your works the first thing I always do is walk with my nose to the canvas. This way I am close with it, traversing my way across the piece before gradually stepping back, to surrender and experience the whole of its luminosity.

You say each work has polarity: it’s true. I want to capture the privacy of that movement, section by section. The final surface of your work holds the bigger picture. It distances itself from what has gone before, and that is when I have to stand back, smile, and absorb the enormity of its volume. This is when I hear the hum, the chatter of polarity. The process of placement doesn’t hide what has gone before, but instead pulls it out, creates intrigue and this is what I always head to first.

‘The dumb show’ or the logical hang? I think they have aligned themselves.

I think an element of ease is they have a connection, and in time, the space will allow a knock-on effect. I wonder if the scale will pose a question, or is it all about the tonal value and direction of application? On voices – there is calm within chaos. The aftermath of a riot is perhaps the time for the self to question the self, to ponder, to linger and dwell. As I mentioned, I find myself nose to canvas with your works. I don’t see them as whole to start with. I find myself moving in and beyond the final surface. Again, it is what lies beneath that which I am emotionally in search of, what is behind and what went before. It’s this noise that determines this final surface, and this finale is something I have to allow in gradually. The works portray an enormous amount of noise – we spoke about noise in your studio – brown noise, red noise, white noise. The vibrations these colour sounds create are constantly in flux with each other, and this is why your works are able to work with each other instinctively. I love an exhibition that doesn’t determine the hang due to scale. Some of the greatest exhibitions disregard scale by having this spontaneous and instinctive hang.

The mind of a painting – so refreshing. We all hear the sheer disparity of paint across the canvas, especially with abstraction, layers and layers and yawn and yawn. So, it’s incredibly refreshing to talk with you about the practicality of producing a painting, of accumulating paint that is controlled and ultimately considered.  There feels like a mood change in the quality of paint: thick, thin, translucent, creased, it’s like a character association and each as you say has a voice and ultimately a presence and persona due to the colour and tone. It’s quite remarkable how colour can become secondary to the volume of the noise. The colour takes full effect as the calm sets in. I know and adore your smaller scale ‘plate’ works. I know they smack a sharp slap, and I think they portray an individual persona. The scaled-up works are riot, a multitude of conversation. I don’t work to music, so perhaps that’s why I hear conversations in them rather than song.

I deliberate with self-thought; past, present and future when I retire myself into your works. I don’t generally fantasise as I feel there is realism in what has been placed, released, relieved, given to the viewer.

‘Light to make light in a work’ – this is something I have yet to consider, but I definitely feel an element of light. I don’t see it as a natural form, as in say a landscape, but in a personal observation of self. A stimulation of mood; light can be dark as it is during dusk, light can be heavy as well as illuminating. Like noise, light takes your work through vast character studies.

There is so much at play with these works, does light feed our vision or do we need these darker characters to develop the light, or is it the glare in contrast to the darker toned characters? Is light goodness? What moves at what speed? The light creates movement, so at what speed do these applications move at? I guess that’s up to the individual. I think maybe that’s why I go nose to canvas. Perhaps I am passing the movement, understanding this before or tracing what was originally discussed and what now has been deliberated and what results in asking for my point of view, comments on the pace in which we view a work. I think you bear this task incredibly well. I for one feel like I am part of your performance, especially when I think about my own movement viewing your work. The disparity in which my stance can alter before absorbing the work as an entire piece; I adore your works for giving me this dance. I adore your works for their cultural context and historical presence. I imagine the future will endorse the historical, like viewing a Twombly.

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