Building a Language
Interview / December 2022
Building a Language: Rob Lyon in Conversation with Jacob Barnes
Fairs, despite their efficiency, aren’t always the best place to experience work. The environment has a tendency to overstimulate, leaving it difficult to parse through the nuances of an artist’s practice. However, when I saw Rob Lyon’s solo presentation by Portland’s Adams and Ollman, I found it magnetic: it pulled me from the fray and into the booth. The work was of course unique, but more importantly, legible to the viewer, although on its own terms. Using an array of motifs carried throughout the body of work, Lyon articulated an active dialogue with the places he inhabits, and a questioning of his own narratives within those spaces. Wanting to know more, I sat down with the British artist to discuss his practice.
Jacob Barnes: At times you are referred to as a “self-taught” artist, but I don’t often think that is a particularly useful term, because it's never quite true. I'm keen to hear from you what your background is—what’s your (in)formal art education, and how did you get to this point? A solo booth at Frieze is no small achievement.
Rob Lyon: Thank you! The only formal art education I had was up to the age of fifteen or sixteen, when I did art for my GCSEs. I think I disappointed my teacher at that time when he found out I didn’t want to continue with it for my A-Levels, because I think I was one of the few students who enjoyed art. But I did Maths, Physics, and Chemistry as A-Levels, and then did Chemistry and Law at the University of Bristol (I still work as an immigration lawyer).
But when I look back now, I see that I've always tried to keep my hand in art, as it was something I’ve always been slightly infatuated with on a personal level. When I was in Bristol at uni, I did a lot of music, and I also did illustration, poetry, and graphic design work around that kind of scene. We’d make posters and other kinds of designs for the music we were making. I was quite involved in the Bristol DIY scene. It was a lot to juggle with a Chemistry and Law degree, but fun.
JB: Just hearing that combo gives me anxiety.
RL: It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but it was quite heavy going on reflection. But I was young enough to be able to do that during the day, then in the evenings, if I wasn't out having fun, write music until one, two in the morning. That was great because it always gave me that confidence to remind myself that I was fundamentally quite a creative person. There’s not much room for that in chemistry and law! But to your point: art. The years rolled on, I was living in Brixton, London, working as an immigration lawyer. Around 2008 or 2009, I picked up some canvases and acrylics, and started having a go painting my housemates’ photos or just unexciting, fairly shit paintings. But I'd always harboured some desire to really develop it, and so I started doing some more abstract pieces.
Around Brixton, I had spotted all these [graffiti] tags that would identify the particular artist. But, in London, if you graffiti on walls, the local authority will try to put these patches of paint that are a similar colour to the existing paint on the wall. Of course, they never quite are. So it's this game of cat and mouse between the graffiti artist and the authorities. The result is you get these really lovely Rothko-esque, humming lozenges of paint all over the walls of London. I became fascinated with those and would try painting them on canvas. I loved the colour field and abstract expressionist feel to it, but I also loved how petty the whole thing was. Then eventually, as I got more serious about painting, I kept coming back to subject matter that’s really important to me: the landscape, particularly the landscape I grew up with.
It was very clear to me that it was a subject matter that I had some authority on, even just with growing up, going to scouts and so on. I had a really charged sense of place. There’s a British artist named Paul Nash, who was active largely in the interwar period, and he's one of the UK’s great modernist landscape painters, but he was a wonderful writer as well. In his diaries he talks about the Roman concept of the spirit of a place: that every place has its own unique spirit. Not necessarily in a religious way, or sort of “spooks and ghosts”, but this kind of resonance that you might have with a particular place. It can be at the most unexpected moment: I used to get that a lot in the Downs. There's a lot of history there; humans have inhabited the Downs for millennia. Then there's this slightly sinister edge to them; in the UK, they're synonymous with war—there’s this sort of patriotic aura to them, encapsulating this contradiction of a beautiful landscape and such a violent history.
But no, there's been no technical training. There’s a term from chemistry—retro synthesis—where one is given a compound, and they have to work out how that compound was made. I think painters do the same thing: they go to look at another painting, and ask, “how did they do that?” I’ve done a lot of that. But I don’t know how much worth the term “self-taught” has.
JB: I think it has a nice ring to it, but actually communicates very little. Once you learn how to paint, however, you’ve done it, it’s maybe the least salient piece of information about your practice.
RL: It’s an unhelpful distraction. I would say the one use of the term is to encourage others who may want to give making art a go, just because it denotes that people have done it in the past. But it shouldn’t go any way towards explaining the works.
JB: But as you mentioned, you started with these more Colour Field-y works; how did you get to your current style?
RL: I'd started painting the Downs whilst I was in London, and I'd always had a longer term aim to abstract the images that I was making. My long term goal was to eventually move beyond more realistic depictions of landscape to something that was much more personal. If you lined them up, from over the last eight, ten years, you’d see a gradual progression towards abstraction in my landscape works, along with a consolidation of the motifs you now see in the works.
I think moving [to Sussex], was a good opportunity to intensify certain things and your vision. That’s definitely part of what happened, but at the same time, there's been lots going on in my life. I had two children! I also lost my dad quite suddenly, and I think that really caused me to focus and tighten up my work. I was dipping into a few other ideas, but I spoke to my wife, Claire, and she very helpfully was able to hold up this figurative mirror and ask “What are you? Where are your strengths?” It was always the landscape that people came back to. The landscape was also such an important part of my grieving process for my father; we used to take long walks, and when navigating grief, I got to see it all anew.
JB: I also want to speak a little about musicality in your work. This is a difficult concept to capture, but I think it’s probably best expressed as “balance”—your works have a great compositional balance.
RL: The honest answer is I don't know what to say. I’ve spoken about the influence of music before, and the process of music-making. I came of age during the rise of glitch, which is a genre that is really about the overall composition and the placement, literally, of sounds across tracks; splicing sounds and dropping them in the mix. Then, you know, in the headphones, there’s the other elements of panning, and I learned so much about balance and counterpoint. Painting gave me the opportunity to build another language, where I could drop things in as I needed them. But I’m hesitant to call it complete resolution, because I think the only complete resolution is outright failure. Instead, it’s just about feel—what’s feeling right when I’m working intuitively.
JB: You also don’t work full-time as an artist; what is it like balancing your life an an immigration lawyer and an artist?
RL: Things are going very well, so it’s not easy. Being a dad, husband, lawyer, and painter all at the same time will obviously cause a little anxiety. But I enjoy my work as a lawyer, and I’m definitely able to bring a sense of urgency to my work because my restricted time forces me to know what I want to do. I’m hesitant to speak about it too much, if only because actually having to “balance” these two lives is a relatively new phenomenon; before things started going well, the painting was something that wasn’t really a viable career. Hence, I’m figuring out a lot of it as it happens.
JB: As a British artist showing largely outside of the UK, do you ever find that some of your work gets lost in translation, or perhaps the inverse: that people not intimately familiar with the British context might get more out of your work, because they don’t just see the places you depict as very local?
RL: I think of it a little bit like the inverse of what used to happen in the UK with smaller American bands: they would come tour here, get signed, and end up having their music shipped back to US radio.
JB: The Killers did that, didn’t they?
RL: Exactly. I’ve never asked Amy [Adams, of Adams and Ollman] what it was about my work that caught her eye, or if she thinks there’s an element of Anglophilia going on. I’m not even sure my work is discernibly British.
JB: Perhaps the removal of context just makes them very pliable towards viewerly projection. I don't say that in a way that diminishes the innate qualities of the work itself, but that if someone doesn't immediately know what the South Downs are, they can pick up on some of the more emotional elements of the work.
RL: Ultimately, I think the world is full of figurative work, and that my work presents a kind of exit strategy; something that can be understood within the same terms, but does something different with those pieces or that visual vocabulary. It would be bold to suggest that I present an alternate destination, but definitely an exit strategy.
Image 1-6: Courtesy of Adams and Ollman