We each have two parents, mother and father, and most of us are a sort of hazy link in the union of those two individuals. Johnny Robertson is a painter living in Dallas but painting certain non-Texas parts of the American West, most prominently Los Angeles, one of the few places that competes with Texas for big personality at maximum volume. He favors the road more than the resting place, so he makes the drive from Texas to California with spontaneous stops along the way as often as he can. His work is a hazy link in the union of those two destinations, an artist at his best on the road, like a second coming of Kerouac with a camera-paintbrush combination in lieu of a notebook.
Robertson was born in Lubbock, attended Texas Tech and did a stint in the military before ultimately earning an M.F.A. in painting from the University of North Texas. His work has been shown in every major Texas city, as well as Boston and Los Angeles. Earlier this year, he exhibited new work at the Conduit Gallery in Dallas; his current show runs through July 18 at the George Billis Gallery in Los Angeles. (Can’t make the roadtrip in time to see the show? The images above bring you what Robertson brought to L.A.)
Robertson spoke about the journey behind his work for this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:
Art&Seek: When the George Billis Gallery found you, did you already have that L.A. motif in your work?
Johnny Robertson: Yeah. I had a diverse set of imagery; there were the L.A. scenes, there was Las Vegas scenery, there was reduced-to-almost-no scenery. I had done airplanes …
A&S: Are the reduced-to-no-scenery paintings still somehow landscapes?
J.R.: I consider everything to have a landscape component, even though there may not be formal components that reveal a landscape. So maybe I would do a big blue field – to me it was a place, but you wouldn’t know that. There’s no visual information to indicate that.
A&S: When you were listing your various series, you didn’t say Texas. Are you consciously not painting the homeland?
J.R.: I’m going out to Lubbock and West Texas towards the end of July. I’ll do a reconnaissance mission and take pictures and see if I can work some of that into a series. But I don’t know. It’s just one of those things where I’m attracted to the Texas imagery, I’m familiar with it, I go to West Texas, I’m from West Texas, but it hasn’t translated that well.
A&S: You’re mythologizing L.A., yet you’re living in a state that is equally as mythic.
J.R.: That’s true, but if you look at the work, I don’t approach these places from a sense of familiarity. They’re about the myth. If it’s mythic, you can’t be familiar with it – it has to be bigger than reality. I drive; I make the journey, so it’s about the mythic destination. But it can’t ever be a destination, because once you’ve arrived, then it’s over. And it can’t be over. So it’s also about the journey. Home might be a little too close.
A&S: Have those two places – Texas and California – shaped who you are?
J.R.: Sure. I mean, that’s it. I showed a piece at the Conduit that was a 30-hour recording of the drive, and in a way that was the completion of something I’ve been trying to figure out how to do since I began. I’ve told Tracee, my wife, time and time again, it’s not just the paintings, it’s the drive. It’s the experience before they have this destination as paintings. When the technology allowed for a recording to be uninterrupted for 30 hours, I was going to record the drive. No editing, start to finish, I don’t ever turn it off, I only sleep a couple times in the car, I leave it running, so there’s a record now of the entire drive. That to me was important, because it was always referencing this sort of mythic ending. But here was another reference to the passage, to this place of promise.
A&S: Did you watch the whole thing after it was shot?
J.R.: I can sit and watch it for hours at a time. I love it! To me it’s like a feature-length film.
A&S: Was there anything on there that surprised you?
J.R.: It’s not really about what is captured, it’s more the rhythm of the road. There’s a bunch of old paintings mixed in there: street lights, power lines. I realized my whole area that I’m looking at is right at the horizon and up to about where the ceiling of the car would be. So all my experience and every image I’ve ever wanted to record, and everything I have recorded, usually takes place within that little window.
A&S: When you say old paintings, do you mean old paintings of yours?
J.R.: Work that I did before I knew what I was doing. I think that’s pretty common for artists, though. I didn’t know how unified the body of work was. At the time I was an undergraduate, we were removing our hand, we were trying to figure out how to get the mechanical look and how to reduce any introspection, you know? How to introduce romance, but in a very slick way. For me, I was going back and looking at photographs. I would take the strangest photographs years before I was in school, just of a street sign, or of a shape. They should have been thrown away; they just happened to get kept. Then I would go back and look at them and be like, “That’s going to be a painting.”
A&S: What’s the distance in years?
J.R.: Some of the pictures were taken in the late 80s, when I was in the military. In grad school I began to approach it with some seriousness. That would have been a good 10 years later.
A&S: Did you go into the military right after high school?
J.R.: No, I kind of floundered a little bit. In high school, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was a terrible student. I took art because it was easy. My art teacher was like, “Hey you need to apply for this art scholarship.” I didn’t want to do it; I hated the idea. I thought you go to college to learn a profession. I did it anyway, and I got the scholarship. One thing I’ve learned is that I will learn the lesson the hard way.
The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.