Conversation: Christopher Roberson

04 April 2016

In Conversation with Christopher Roberson, by Jodi Hays

NASHVILLE, TN — I first began to follow Christopher Roberson’s work through on the suggestion of artist Patrick DeGuire. At the time I was curating for a University, and hoped for a chance to get to show his work if it ever made sense. I was not too long after that I met Christopher while helping install some of my student’s work at Cummins Station in Nashville. He was an art handler for a colorful and kind (and sadly, recently departed) man, Gene Sizemore. Christopher allowed one of my students to understudy some basic art handling and installing. He didn’t get paid a lick for being nice and generous with his time. That alone might not be the only reason for DADU to host his work, but it sure makes the whole thing more fun.
— ­Jodi Hays, DADU, April 2016

DADU presents River Rat, an exhibition of Drawings and Sculpture by Christopher Roberson on April 9, 2016.


Jodi Hays: Thanks for showing your work in your home-town and at DADU. Can you talk a bit about your work for River Rat?

Christopher Roberson: There’s a certain ambient comedy I’m hunting with this work. Imagery that is a little too slippery to hold, or completely wrap your head around. I’m thinking about the dead, dark space within a joke or story and the pressure that builds during the silence – this is the zone that I want my work to operate, especially with the works on paper. At this point, I am instinctive with my materials. I allow them to lead the way and reveal connections over time. In this case, there is a type of sublimation that occurs with black rubber that I am very attracted to. It’s a very erotic material, but also, obviously, very industrial. Throw into the mix memories of oppressively hot southern summers, floating around lakes and rivers in rubber inner tubes and I can begin to play with these layered perceptions. Sculpture has always led my practice, but just before leaving Nashville for New York I started to take my drawings more seriously. They are very much a pulse in my practice that allows me to keep a rhythm within the work. So when you proposed the idea of putting together a works on paper show, it was very exciting. Its an opportunity to really bring these drawings to the surface and what better place to show them than another artist’s studio in Nashville – a place I have a complicated relationship with.

JH: We both went to undergraduate in art at University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Lately I have been thinking through abstraction in the south, specifically Tennessee, and the legacy of professors there. How did that program shape you and your work?

Christopher Roberson, Trap (Asshole), 2016, sumi ink on paper, 30 x 22 in.

Christopher Roberson, Trap (Asshole), 2016, sumi ink on paper, 30 x 22 in.

CR: I had a very good experience in Knoxville. The professors at that time, specifically in the sculpture department — Jennifer Odem and Jason Brown, really fostered a spirit of experimentation and research — this in combination with space, facilities, and wild early twenties mania produced some very strange and special work by the students around me. There was often a fair amount of danger involved, especially at the annual iron pours, but also just daily at the building — kicked back wood flying around the wood shop, people lighting artworks on fire, access to chainsaws — there was a fearlessness that was contagious and productive. There was also a palpable competitiveness — who could make the most work and who could sleep the least. The thing that really opened the gates for me is that people were willing to have in depth conversations about the absurd. I remember an early piece I made that involved a heap of spaghetti and meatballs on top of a revolving record player that had a slow drip of water coming from a bucket that I installed near the ceiling — it felt like a privilege that I was able to make these things and have a serious discussion about it. I still feel very fortunate to be an artist.

JH: Will you also talk a bit about Artist-Run spaces, from your perspective, both in Nashville and New York?

CR: I have a deep belief in artist-run spaces. I actually first encountered these types of initiatives in Chicago, where I lived for 5 years after undergrad. There is a midwestern stubbornness in Chicago. People work hard and play hard. Plus there is the influence of SAIC and various MFA programs around the city. The art market, from my vantage point, really lives in the shadows of some really exciting and sustainable artist-run spaces and projects in this city. I’m thinking here of ACRE, Roots & Culture, the Co-Prosperity Sphere, The Hills, among others.

I see Nashville as a place where these types of spaces could really help broadcast the solid work of local workers to a larger audience. And since the market in Nashville is super thin, I think there is a real opportunity to show some challenging, unfriendly, or politically charged work. And what better time than when your city is on every top 10 list of places to visit or live.

RIP Fugitive, Open Lot, Joint Projects, etc.
Viva DADU, 40AU, Coop, and the Packing Plant.

Christopher Roberson, Trap (Citrus), 2016, sumi ink on paper, 30 x 22 in.

Christopher Roberson, Trap (Citrus), 2016, sumi ink on paper, 30 x 22 in.

JH: Yes, Viva! Our first show at DADU was curated by my friend John Ros (who runs galleryELL). He was recently interviewed by Sluice out of London on artist-run spaces (and specifically, galleryELL). What struck me as a prompt for so many spaces is the ability to be nimble within “the system”, to work alongside it, not necessarily against it. In our “super thin” market here in Nashville we can find a lot of freedom, as long as criticality is not thrown out in the process, at least, that’s what a lot of my community here keeps in mind (ahem, Campfire).

CR: The exciting thing about artist-run or alternative spaces, apartment galleries, pop-ups, etc. is that the goals for each can be so vast. I think there’s room for projects with a very punk approach — in direct opposition or indifference to any sort of system. But I also think its important for artists to come together and present work in a very professional way with a strong backbone of criticality. This is something that Coop has done very well in the past — showing challenging work in a way that doesn’t alienate or ignore the viewer. Many of the spaces in Brooklyn work successfully alongside larger commercial galleries. I’ve seen many of these mature into non-profits, which allows them to fund some ambitious projects, offer residencies, and really act as a conduit for younger or under-represented artists.

JH: Do you think about your position as an artist and your choice of materials related to “working-class” (prompted by your choices of material like rubber, but also past work around basketball games — insert thud of a deflated ball here)?

Christopher Roberson, Trap (Pelican), 2016, sumi ink on paper, 30 x 22 in.

Christopher Roberson, Trap (Pelican), 2016, sumi ink on paper, 30 x 22 in.

CR: I treat art-making like a trade. My work ethic was inherited and probably not so different from any of my grandparents, who were farmers and sawmill owners. It is an everyday activity. I don’t think my father took a single sick or vacation day his entire career and my mother is the hardest working person I’ve ever met. I am also completely dependent on work for my own sanity. There is a great Chuck Close quote that I think about often:

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”

As for my materials, I’ve never thought of them as directly “working-class”, though I do look for things that are willing to work with me, not against me. I’m not interested in using all of my energy fighting against a material. This is why I abandoned concrete. It satisfied a set of ideas at the time, but I nearly ruined my back. I now ask my materials to collaborate with me, surprise me. Maybe that sounds corny but I’m okay with getting a little new-agey in the studio.