Rosanne Robertson: Slipping. Suspended.
by Sara Jaspan
“I see it as a political act, actually – getting in touch with my own body,” she tells me over Skype. As with all things, I can only approach artist Rosanne Robertson’s recent output from my own position: that of a 28-year-old cis woman with a body. A body which, like any woman, I have and always will have a difficult relationship with.
After several years of making improvisational sound-based performance, Robertson has increasingly begun to move away from the intensity of the live space; returning to drawing as a way of slowing things down and physically stepping outside of her work. Yet she remains very much within it.
Her recent exhibition at PAPER, Slipping. Suspended., filled the small space with body. With large, visceral, unapologetic sections of torso isolated against a psychologically-charged charcoal-black background; shown alongside several more intimate oil and graphite pieces from which the abstract suggestion of fragmented human form emerges. The first set are based on photographs of herself performing for the camera and found images of other women; the second set were made using a free, automatic method of mark-making.
An act of self-care, Robertson describes the process of creating these works as learning to understand her own physicality again. “They come from my own experiences of marginalisation: of being a gay woman, of being young and understanding who you are and then coming up against rigid heteronormative ways and structures that tell you you should be otherwise. It’s a sort of fracturing experience. There’s a violence still related to how you exist within and navigate the world as a queer person.”
These drawings are not about bodies, but about the complex, messy, fluctuating experience of inhabiting one. The inextricable, if often down-played relationship between the psyche and the soma. “Something we almost can’t speak about,” Robertson adds.
The amorphous connection is most apparent in the ‘pinned’ pieces, where strings, nerves and wires hold the image in a suspended, fragile state; evoking the impression of overriding flux. The same occurs in her sculptures, which look only just tied together; the joins and precarious methods of construction exposed. Rather than weakness, however, a generous sense of openness is what comes across.
“Hopefully they offer a different sort of power” she asserts; “not being scared to share something more honest about yourself.” Coupled with this, they simultaneously encapsulate another subtle kind of resistance: “I see the smaller parts as opposing the idea of one totalitarian object or dominant structure; subverting the tactics of an egotistical, capitalist system.” Confounding the male gaze, perhaps.
Though the abstracted drawings are rooted in her own embodied experience, it occurs to Robertson that they were also made after Queer Art Show 5: Revoke (2017) – the last of a series of exhibitions staged at The Penthouse (a dyke/queer contemporary art project in Manchester run by Robertson and her partner and artist/curator Debbie Sharp). She describes how much it meant to a lot of the artists included in the exhibition: “just to be able to present what they wanted and not have to explain or be censored. People felt very free and open.” Speaking of the forms that later emerged through her automatic process, she continues: “I started to see them as queer bodies – unknown bodies of varying gender and sexuality. I’ve never made in response to an exhibition or environment like that before, but I think it was the connection that I felt with other queer artists that I put into the work.”
When I ask her about this ‘unconscious’ way of drawing, she links it back to her earlier performances. “They come together really fast and if I hadn’t been improvising with sound, if I hadn’t connected with how I improvise, how free I can be in my own actions, then I don’t think I’d have got here.”
Being comfortable in ‘the moment’, as she describes it, has a political dimension for Robertson, as well as a creative one. She tells me: “In a patriarchal society, I think people are taught to distrust their own instincts, because if you trust that much in your own self or actions then people could bring down whatever championed system we live in.” For her, the moment is a space where you can exist without influence; where you can make a decision and begin to shift things. Despite being full of uncertainties and unknowns, she concludes: “Alternative movements are always in this more precarious place; it’s an exciting place to be.”
Though we discussed the complexities of mind/body experience for all people, Robertson stresses: “It’s very important to me that I’m handling female and gender queer form. It’s about reclaiming space that has been objectified and commodified.” She was pleased at the preview of Slipping. Suspended. to find that the work resonated with others there. For me, at least, the abstract drawings in particular give voice to an aspect of experience that is hard to put into words.