Robert Szot: Painting Control
Can you start by giving us a bit of information about where you grew up and where you’re currently living and working?
Hi John, thanks for inviting me for an interview.
I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. It was a very quiet and stable place to grow up but lacked a lot in terms of art and culture. Downtown Houston was always a treat for me to visit, and institutions like the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel continue to inspire my work even now. I moved to New York City in 2001 and have been living and working in Brooklyn since then.
Obviously the access to culture and history a place like New York offers you is unparalleled but living here has become something more to me than just being able to visit the Met whenever I feel like it. I think when you are purpose driven and focused on your work it becomes more about adding to history and culture rather than just taking from it. History will always be there to inform your work but you should definitley allow it to seduce you and let it encourage you to add to its fabric.
You’ve exhibited widely, including the Saatchi Gallery in London and you exhibited at Anita Rogers Gallery in New York earlier this year. How was this show, and do you become more and more selective with the places that you show as time goes by?
The Anita Rogers Gallery was something that happened just this year and it is a relationship that I am very excited to be a part of. Anita is from an artist family and exudes an excitement for good work that is infectious. She has also put together a knowledgeable and ambitious crew that frankly have been nothing short of delightful to work with. The gallery itself is so old-school Soho and is a challenge I am looking forward to tackling when I have my solo there in 2019. My introductory show with Anita Rogers this last winter was great and has only bolstered my own desire to get back in there with even better work, frankly I am giddy at the thought of it. I also continue to work with Muriel Guepin who I have been with for 8 years now. She has recently moved to Soho and taken to being more of a dealer and less of an exhibition space. She has been a great foundation for me and we have come up together in a sense. I am also working with a few galleries in California now and will be exhibiting work in LA this June.
When I came to New York City I knew nothing. Nothing about being an artist, nothing about selling or exhibiting, really nothing. This isn't unusual because I believe a lot of people come here thinking one thing and finding something else entirely. It was this air of uncertainty that would lead me to chase every lead and say 'yes' to every request and inquiry. Fortunately I haven't had a lot of bad experiences especially when it came to galleries but it wasn't because I knew what the hell I was doing. And there is an important lesson here, and that lesson is to say 'no' to things that don't work for you. Set boundaries and don't let people or galleries cross them. I think that little piece of advice will carry you a long way. I have been very lucky in with the long term relationships I have had with galleries and art dealers but you have to be selective even when you have few options. Keep working and hang on to your self worth and value and everything else will take care of itself.
Your works appear chaotic and harmonious at the same time, tell us more about your working method.
That's a good read and I feel the same way about my work. I never approach a painting with a preconceived notion of where it will end up and the story my process is primarily about editing. I have a hard time telling the difference between paintings on day one. They all look the same to me really. A lot of dark lines sectioning off the canvas, a bit of blotchy color here and there with no real indication of what's to come. I struggle in the early stages because there are no real problems that I can solve, so I have to labor to create these problems. Day two is typically when a painting will begin to take on different and unique characteristics. After day two is where I excel and my process becomes very kaleidoscopic with one move opening up 10 moves and so on.
Taking on a life of their own I just go along with the painting at this point as the work has always informed me and not the other way around. I am happy when it is cooperating with me and we just go down a preselected path, like walking hand in hand. These situations can turn ugly though and that's when the editing process becomes tedious, almost painful. I will add something to the canvas and then immediately remove it, sometimes for days on end. Add, retract, repeat. It can feel like the tank is empty at times and I am stalled. The solution I come to over and over is that I have to put the painting in jeopardy by making an almost wild decision, something counterintuitive, in order to move the work toward completion.
Maybe some damned huge black line cutting the painting in half. It's that destructive decision that forces me to repair what I have just done and finish the painting in some interesting way. The avoidance of feeling like I am boring has a strong influence on me and it drives my destructive tendencies. You can see it in my work. My willingness to destroy parts of a painting that I maybe even love gives the work velocity.
What one piece of advice would you give an artist who is struggling to produce work?
Forget art school. For get other artists. Forget your television and your phone. The studio and the work you produce should be your main concern. Everyone struggles to produce work and you should struggle, frankly, because it should always be a difficult thing to accomplish. The key is to never stop working. A consistent studio practice, seriously LIVING in your studio, will eliminate any stumbling block or difficulty you may run into. Even the opinions of other people become largely irrelevant if you are willing to commit nearly all of your time to your work. And try to have a little fun every once in a while. Nobody likes a stiff know it all. Trust me I know.
Follow Robert on Instagram @robszot
Interviewed by John Bingham