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Duncan Robertson Illustration Essay

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A Stitch in Time

Robertson takes the domestic as his starting point. He ‘steals’, or ‘appropriates’, in the language of contemporary art criticism, already existing commercially printed imagery in the form of mainly 19th century wallpaper designs as they can be found in various rooms of the house. In a manner that typifies the working method and ethos of many artists working today, in print or in other media (see Logue’s piece) he recreates these paper ‘prints’ as printed textiles. He then literally frames his new ‘prints’ in the guise of embroidery hoops. Thereby he alludes to the similarity between both textile and interior design as well as the role of printed patterns as the basis for embroidery. Wallpaper is, of course, not just the inoffensive, merely decorative backdrop to the more important and representative items which define an interior space, such as furniture. The latter is regarded as having a vital role in fashioning and proclaiming the status and social value that characterise a historic house and its inhabitants. The same role applies to the seemingly straightforward print that is wallpaper. Its changing fashions, like the other more obvious pieces such as furniture, help to create identity, for example, of wealth and sophistication and the often ‘tacit’, that is implicit, knowledge that enables the latter (what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the acquisition of ‘cultural capital’). Today such practices have been democratised in the context of consumer culture and mass communication. Yet the processes of social differentiation and economic power still play a not inconsiderable role even within the most private seeming environment of one’s home. Nevertheless, wallpaper still functions as a sign of the private, intimate, familial and often female gendered space. This is in opposition to the public, representational ‘masculine’ space of offices, meeting rooms and debating chambers.
Robertson reinforces this allusion to the private and feminine not only by transferring the ornamental wallpaper print to the tactile textile surface. He also adopts embroidery for the next step of the creation of his piece. Conventionally, embroidery is regarded as a feminine activity. Yet, Robertson fuses references to both femininity and masculinity by using this predominantly feminine, decorative craft to stitch the imagery of weaponry, as found in different parts of the house, on to the wallpaper designs.9 At one level, in the context of Traquair, the reference to the public, masculine enterprise of war and physical combat, even as a sport, is a reminder of the precarious historical position of the house with regard to internal and external threats, whether this refers to its location in the contested borderland between Scotland and England or its affiliation with the Jacobite cause. At another level, Robertson’s intervention prompts us to consider some of the particular ‘ingredients’ which help to construct both general and more specific versions of history and heritage, the private and the public, male and female identity.
Robertson’s merging of the commercial print with the craft of embroidery is noteworthy in another respect. Both have conventionally been regarded as belonging in the non-high art realm. Furthermore, he mixes the ‘ready-made’ or pre-fabricated imagery of the wallpaper print with the hand-crafted and authentic mode of stitching. However, in art practice of the last forty or more years boundaries between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art have been either deliberately disregarded or ostensibly employed to undermine the very same boundaries and the marginalisation that was affiliated with them. The same applies to the different values attached to commercial or ready-made imagery or objects as opposed to those originating purely in the artist’s imagination.
Robertson’s methods are furthermore interesting in the context of expanded printmaking. His adoption of commercial imagery in form of wallpaper is an instance of art’s embrace of popular, commercial imagery since Pop art. His mixing of different modes of image making, such as drawing by means of embroidery on to the flat print involves, as with Douglas, a heightening of the ‘tactility’ of a print. This occurs through the comparatively three-dimensional texture and lively presence of the yarn. If at one end of the spectrum, prints become flatter through digitisation and are often looked at and encountered on the relatively immaterial computer screen, in Robertson’s piece the loss of physical presence is restored by the creation of such a conspicuous surface and object.10 As with Douglas, the visceral effect and pleasure of Robertson’s installation complement our involvement with new technologies in everyday life and afford insights, enjoyment and emotional responses which are specific to the material form of the piece.

Duncan Robertson is from Perthshire in Scotland and studied at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) graduating in Sculpture. As a student he set up his own international exchange with the class of Eduardo Paolozzi in Munich. Paolozzi was delighted with the idea of an exchange between Munich and Edinburgh and to take Robertson in his class. Eduardo took Duncan somewhat under his wing while on exchange, taking him to exhibitions, restaurants, the Opera and inviting him to participate in an exhibition at the state museum (city museum) “Arkie Nioa”. Duncan initiated the exchange back in 1989 and a Munich exchange program still exists for ECA students as a result.
On graduation Robertson was awarded a John Kinross scholarship by the Royal Scottish Academy. By working as an assistant at a printmaking studio in Florence he subsidised his funding and managed to live for a year in Florence. He spent time exploring the city’s rich art collection and sketching in front of master Renaissance works. The use of classical motifs and materials and their manipulation into striking new forms with contemporary relevance has remained central to Robertson’s work.
On returning to Scotland Robertson used Edinburgh Printmakers (EP) as a base, further developing his skills in etching and learning how to screenprint. The open access nature of EP was of great help in supporting his artistic development. He describes it as a sort of artistic “cold frame” for hardening up and developing his work beyond the academic environment. Robertson sees the similarities between printmaking and sculptural processes - both often involving work towards a final piece in stages and layers.
Robertson was awarded the King Edward VII scholarship and DAAD funding (German Academic Exchange Service) to take up a place to study at the Academie der Bildenden Kunst in Munich. He returned to the UK a master student in the class of Asta Groting after 10 years in Germany. He also undertook a post-graduate diploma in Art Psychotherapy at Goldsmiths, University of London. The psychoanalytic theories studied such Jung, Kilne and Winnicott’s theory that, “we all reveal our worst hopes and fears through play”, have been of great influence in the development of his artistic practice and working methods.  
Robertson has participated in several residency programs and international workshops, from Stavanger, Norway as part of their European Capital of Culture, The North Sea Project - taking photography and performance into the landscape, to Albany, Western Australia on a exchange program between Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and Vancouver Art Centre - working on photographing the landscape and site specific installations. He was also awarded the Friends of the RSA scholarship for returning to Munich to research and develop his work.Robertson strives to develop his artistic practice and profile. He continues to use EP and works from a studio at the recently re-furbished Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop where he teaches as part of the education team. He also works as a freelance gallery educator for Scottish National Galleries.
He has been invited to take part in several international workshops in Germany, Austria and Scotland. Work he produced during a European Union funded workshop in Linz Austria as part of their year of European Capital of Culture was exhibited at Palazio Abrizie as part of the Venice Biennale later that year. His next solo show will take place in the University of Tallinn in Estonia and is scheduled for December 2012 to Jan 2013.

I am presently based at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. I am primarily a sculptor but also use printmaking and employ a wide range of materials in the production of my artwork.
I used embroidery and stitching as the main method in creating the artwork for “Reflective Histories”. The premise for this work was to make meaningful visual statements in an unexpected format.
For my intervention at Traquair the source of my motifs was the wallpaper found in Traquair house itself. The work was printed onto fabric and embroidered with images of weapons that may once have been used to defend the building or have connections with the four Maxwell Stuart brothers killed during the first world war. The positioning of contemporary embroideries next to the existing historical pieces at Traquair introduces a site-specific installation (intervention) in a subtle and sensitive way.
The reproductions of the motifs found in the wallpaper will hopefully encourage the viewer to re-examine the process associated with original block print wallpapers, purchased by a previous Earl from the Great Exhibition in 1851. The camouflaged images of weaponry hint at the defensive requirements of Traquair house during the Jacobite period as well as referencing more modern conflicts and reflecting on the history of the house and Scotland as a whole.
For my co-published print I became interested in the display of miniature cameo portraits of the four Maxwell Stuart brothers and their military medals found in the chapel at Traquair. All of these young men lost their lives during the First World War. I used images of the four brothers in the print itself, developing the image as a memorial piece. It was my aim to illustrate the family connections and the sacrifices they made during the war and associated conflict in a way that would be universally engaging and demonstrate the loss of war.
Embroidery is contemplative and meditative. As a craft usually associated with feminine sensibilities I employ it to subvert the motives of aggressive “masculine” imagery usually associated with war and violence. I aim to make images that are poignant and engaging.
This method of working stems from an album of First World War embroidered postcards that were given to me by my grandmother. She had received them from her father (my great grandfather) as greeting cards posted from the front line trenches in France during the First World War. I was fascinated by these images from the past, even as a child. There is something very poignant about such fragile embroidery, which whilst describing delicate flowers also carries with it a darker sentiment, with its origins in the battlefields of France.

As an artist I want to make tangible the poignant nature of such images. I am very interested in the use of flowers to communicate emotions that can be difficult to express in words alone - particularly love, remembrance and forgiveness.