Stumbling blindly to find the way: in conversation with Charlie Roberts

Charlie Roberts likes to keep things fresh. Working in a range of media from acrylic to gouache to wood carving, his approach to making art is ever changing, playful and experimental. Influenced by popular culture, the figures in his work are often depicted sporting athleisure wear and other signifiers of the current times.

Charlie’s compositions are narrative-based and often humorously uncanny. A couple of well-dressed dogs are out for a drive, an artist sits sketching in a glass house, or a busy nocturnal park scene are some of the subject matter of his recent work. To devise what these scenes mean is no easy feat, and one might say is not the point of Charlie’s art. Wary of too much reading into his art, Charlie prefers to keep interpretation in the realm of formalism. What might the long-limbs on his figures represent? A compositional solution for filling the picture frame.

We caught up with the prolific Oslo-based artist to chat more about his varied work, making a break in the art world and his day-to-day studio practice.

AMM: Hi Charlie! To start us off, can you share your earliest art-related memory?

CR: I grew up a few blocks from the Kansas State Fair and remember being impressed and attracted to the strange paintings of celebrities and weather events on the carnival rides. Also I remember being blown away by the scene paintings done for a local production of Peter Pan. The DIY aesthetics of that local theatre have always stuck in my mind.

AMM: You seem to produce work prolifically. What are your daily rituals that feed you creatively?

CR: I try to be consistent and focused. Exercise, play basketball when I can, eat good and drink a ton of coffee and listen to fast music when I need to get shit done.

AMM: What is your creative process?

CR: It goes in waves, I will be floating around for a couple of weeks at a time, just experimenting, trying to be as loose and non-judgmental as possible until I hit on a kernel of something that can be built upon. Sometimes it is a new subject or picture structure, and sometimes it is a material or technique. For instance, I recently made a group of paintings with crayons and airbrush on burlap. It took a couple of weeks to become comfortable with the technique and then I had about two months of making the paintings. Then if I’m happy with the result I file away the technique and will visit it again when a subject I’m working on seems to fit it. The whole process is very much an act of stumbling blindly and bumping into new bits here and there.

AMM: What mediums do you typically work in and what appeals to you about each of them? Any new medium you’re keen to try out?

CR: I work with watercolor and gouache on paper, drawing materials, occasionally oil paint on canvas, acrylic and ink of canvas, and wood carving. They all have their advantages and the work in each informs the others. Wood carving is a reductive method and has influenced the way I think about organising pictures and my use of line in drawing. I think the carving drew the paintings into a flatter and more colour conscious direction for a while. You don’t have to think about shading and light with painted sculpture because the light does the job for you and you can instead focus singularly on colour. This has helped with the paintings. I want to make stone carvings.

AMM: Over the years your art has changed considerably. What has influenced these shifts and where are you currently at in your work?

CR: I´m pretty restless and my extracurricular interests tend to influence the work. Almost all of my work can be seen through the lens of fandom. I had a period when I was reading a lot of detective fiction and was making noir-ish, detailed works, as well as storyboard/comic strip paintings. My lifelong love of rap has been an influence and popped up both visually and vibe-wise. The freedom, embrace of new technology and the aesthetic-hopping of rap music and culture has always been central to my work. Sporty Girls was a celebration of women in sport and comes out of my support and admiration of youth and amateur sports.

AMM: Can you tell us about your pervasive interest in naïve representation, and what other styles of art you’re influenced by from the art canon (or beyond)? How does this translate into your practice?

CR: The idea of genre painting has always appealed to me and seems to be a timeless setup for making pictures. It will always be fascinating to look back and see works depicting contemporary life with its fashions and technologies. There is the argument that too many specifics will date a song or image, but I find those details fascinating. The paintings by Jannson Stegner are some of my favourites right now. He combines classical technique with the college sweaters, dyed hair and sports gear of today. They are these strange timeless and hyper-current gems. I´m also a big fan and influenced by Pacific Northwest Native American wood carving, rococo painting, 2000s mixtape cover art, 80s and 90s fashion photography, the Flemish Masters…

AMM: Some of your recent paintings have a nocturnal and surreal quality to them, like windows into dreamscapes. What is your thinking behind these artworks?

CR: Sometimes it’s nice to slow it down and play a dreamy ballad. I’m not sure exactly where these come from.

AMM: What ideas or concepts are you currently exploring in your work?

CR: Right now I’m trying to figure out a way to bring lines back into the paintings, I’m trying a couple of different things and not sure where it’s headed… thinking about Marsden Hartley, Max Beckman, and Donald Duck Cartoons.

AMM: In an artist bio you describe your practice as an “obsessive and eclectic collect[ion] of contemporary pop culture and art history”. In your earlier work this is apparent in the compositions which have an ethnographic quality to them. Can you tell us more about this aspect of your art?

CR: In hindsight I think these works were a way to train myself to paint by copying hundreds of artists and making pictures of thousands of objects. You can learn a lot of tricks by reproducing work. It makes sense that this has been a staple of art educations for forever. Also these works were made in the year the google image search came online in a big way.

AMM: Who are the people in your artwork? Are they real or imagined?

CR: Real, imagined and hybrids.

AMM: In a fairly recent body of paintings, you depict lithe youths with long intertwining limbs. Can you tell us more about this body of work and what these elongated limbs might represent?

CR: The swoopy drawing motion came first and it made sense to apply it to appendages. It is also a way of filling the picture space.

AMM: You exhibit your work extensively around the world. Do you have any advice to share for marketing yourself as an artist and making connections in the industry?

CR: Unless you have climbed past a certain rung on the gallery ladder I think you have to diversify your practice as much as you can. Work in as many markets as possible, and have a range of product, from small drawings to big paintings or whatever. But most importantly you have to buckle down and make good work. It is more competitive than ever and at the same time easier to be seen, so if you have something exceptional and you understand your lane and where you fit in you should be able to find a niche. And be flexible and friendly and go to shows. And work your ass off.

AMM: You’ve been involved in a few fashion collaborations recently. How did these come about? What do you make of your art being ‘viewed’ in different contexts beyond the traditional gallery space?

CR: Through friends, and I think it’s great to work in more accessible spaces.

AMM: What’s next for you?

CR: I’m getting ready to make some wood carvings for Magnus Karlsson.

Find out more about the artist: www.gallerimagnuskarlsson.com/artists/charlie-roberts