JEFF ROBB INTERVIEWED BY ELLIOT BURNS
Elliot Burns: I’d like to open by asking about the recurrent subject of your practice, the liminal state.
Jeffrey Robb: If you think back a few hundred years ago, the average person didn’t move far away from where they lived and they only met a few hundred people. A big change for them was growing from a child to grown up; that was the rite of passage. Now our culture has ended up with us all in a perpetual liminal state of change. In the Western world especially, and maybe even in those cultures that don’t own very much, people are very aspirational; they’re in a state of change. I’m trying to visualise that human state of transition, within a technical and three-dimensional sensibility. Obviously, I’m not making a direct translation, I’m using the bread and butter of fine art history, the nude, done in a different way.
EB: So, you’re centring the constant liminal state to capitalist concerns of desire?
JR: There are two sides to that. There’s the capitalist state, of wanting stuff, which you see in developing countries, who aspire to material goods like branded clothing, which obviously the developed Western world takes for granted. But also, in hopefully a post-capital state, where magic and spirituality are more aspirational than physical goods.
EB: Or wellness and experience as it might be co-opted.
JR: Human beings are themselves growing up within the cycle of an individual’s life, learning that it isn’t physical objects but their innerself and relationships with other people that are the key. Not to want a car or a bigger house, all those things that we’re being told that we need. The trouble is, very quickly you get into new-age speak. That’s a semantic issue as it doesn’t fit in with the language of commerce; they can’t sell you personal wellbeing and happiness very well.
EB: Can’t they? Even Alex Jones, the right-wing conservative media pundit, is essentially a vehicle for selling wellness products.
JR: But they don’t work, so it’s all false.
EB: Of Course. Why do you think the lenticular medium is so useful when expressing liminality?
JR: The lenticular medium acts very much like a window on to another three-dimensional space; that portal aspect, combined with the ability to freeze transitory motion, so that the floating figures are analogous to the liminal state. Capturing things you can’t see, is in my opinion very much heightened by the use of the three-dimensional media. If you did a painting it might look more fantastical, newage-y and sci-fi.
EB: You’d need to fill in the symbology and references, rather than allowing the media to speak for itself?
JR: Exactly, it’d be too prescriptive. Whereas with a lenticular image you’re already asking questions about the medium, because most people haven’t seen it before, at least at such a quality and size. They’re weirded out, partly because they don’t know anything about the history, which goes back to the 1950s for holography and to the late 1800s for lenticulars. The first ones we recognise as familiar, were made of Bakelite in the beginning of the last century.
EB: And lenticular paintings dating back even further?
JR: It was first proposed and demonstrated by the French painter G. A. Bois-Clair in 1692.
EB: There’s a long technical history. Visible in the behind the scenes photos of your practice is a real sense of a relationship between the craft and the science, coming together.
JR: Possibly, where I have a unique position is due to my background. Starting in photography, then doing a Master’s degree in threedimensional art and holography at the Royal College of Art, and then working professionally in three-dimensional image making for fifteen years after that. Working in the professional realm, in a commercial environment, you’re being asked how to do things that you wouldn’t choose to do. You’ve been in the hot seat of being asked to produce unusual things, from trading cards of American footballers to banknote holograms to advertising hoardings for whiskies. It gives you this huge grounding in abilities to produce anything you like.
EB: Why or when did you shift out of the professional arena?
JR: I suppose for me that the watershed came from the portrait of the Queen Chris Levine did in 2003/4 that I helped with; that was the end of my commercial life in 2004.
EB: Why was that the tipping point?
JR: Looking back, it catapulted the medium into the public gaze. Suddenly there is a lenticular photograph in the National Portrait Gallery, suddenly there was a lenticular touring the world, suddenly it was on lots of diplomats’ walls, suddenly it was at auction for £200,000. It left a high watermark. Plus, people are quite fickle, once they knew you’re associated with a project like that, it ticked a box. Which subsequently made it easier to take the medium further than it had been before. The medium that I work in, it’s a completely undiscovered country, because people who’ve been using it to date have appropriated images. For example, Peter Blake has taken his collages and turned them into 3D. Roy Lichtenstein did it too. But they didn’t make the prints. They wouldn’t know how. Whereas there’s absolutely no one trained in lenticular. You could count on your hand the number of these photography systems in the country and the ones who have built those systems are not artists; they’re doing it as a means to an end, for other people, who themselves would dip in and out of the medium. So, it’s very artisan in that sense, it’s still very crafty and it’s still incredibly niche. I like that.
EB: Your position occupies both the technical and the artistic terrains, which is quite unique.
JR: It allows me to know the unknowable nuances of how you do it, which are often subliminal. Often people ask “How’d you do it?” Well I’ve never measured anything, I’ve just a sense of how it should be. Ask someone how to kick a football, you can’t break it down to the physics of it in a way that helps you practically.
EB: You can’t explain the maths. I assume there’s a maths and an accuracy to the process?
JR: There is, yet an interesting point with media which represent the three-dimensional world is that it is actually the things that are not quite right that make it interesting. You can make things that are too 3D.
EB: Almost an uncanny valley.
JR: Except the uncanny valley is specific to human faces I think. If you look closely at a realist painting, it’s the paint that makes you interested in it, the fact that it’s not a photograph. The nuances of the medium that don’t make it look exactly like a window on the real world are the ones which make it interesting. What you’ve got to know is how to use those things that are not accurate. For example, lenticular photography can only really portray two to three feet of space, but you can convey a huge amount of dimensionality using visual tricks. You can have a shadow, miles away, because you can read that as a blur, whereas, if you have text back there, you can’t read it. Volumes which are two to three metres cubed translate really well into the lenticular medium. Whereas it’s very hard to do true landscapes, because, if you’re three miles away from Mt Everest it looks flat. You can’t move far enough.
EB: Will advances in the scale of lenticular printing change that?
JR: The thing is as you go bigger in X and Y you don’t go bigger in Z. So, the answer to that is no. And that’s something that a lot of advertisers don’t understand. They used to say “Can we have a billboard sized one?” and they expect it to go back fifty feet. But it still can only go back three feet.
EB: You’ve spoken about an underlying aspect of your practice being an interest in magic. How do you relate that to these very contemporary technical digital challenges?
JR: Magic has been part of every culture that we know of. The famous image of the sorcerer, at the Cave of the Trois-Frères in France, is about 13,000 years old. The traditional philosophical take is that it goes: magic, religion, science, in terms of human history. But if you look at society today there’s more reference to magic than ever before. When the conquistadors went to South America, they were so far advanced that the natives had no comprehension of what was in front of them. It was like aliens landing. Arthur C Clark famously said “Any technology far enough advanced looks like magic” and in the novels of Iain M Banks this is taken to its logical conclusion where you imagine a society so far advanced than ours, where the machines are sentient; but then they’re presented by this thing that they can’t understand, and how do they deal with that? Quite an interesting idea about how the unknown will always be central to a culture. In many ways magic relates back to: We don’t know why we’re here! We don’t know why we exist! The really basic questions. Our entire physical universe is made up of these incredibly esoteric things.
EB: You’re trying to present these questions through the form of the female nude, why is that? Is it due to its central place in an art historical context? Its ease of communicating and understanding?
JR: For me the female form is a beautiful thing. It immediately grabs people’s attention. It’s been done so much that to try and do it in a way that hasn’t been done before, which is hopefully what I’m doing, is breaking new ground within a very traditional setting. I think often that is the essence of great art. There’s nothing new, but if you can take something that’s been done a lot before and make something new, then that’s a really interesting intellectual and creative challenge to make your life’s endeavour.
EB: I have to ask, how do you place your work in regards to critiques of the male gaze? In order to exist your work necessitates a quantity of digital eyes and creates something that has a near object status.
JR: Most people who buy my art are women. In this age it’s very easy to argue “You’re objectifying women”. However, people want naked women, women want naked women, that is the truth. It might not fit into the current politically correct way of answering your question but those are the facts.
EB: How about your more abstract, spatial projects? These don’t quite fit the same market concern.
JR: The pyramids? That was the first step in an idea of making threedimensional objects from a medium which itself is two-dimensional but shows a three-dimensional space. I think that’s another completely untapped avenue I could go down. It’s like making holographic sculptures, in terms of space and shadow, to represent it at a fundamental level. But it’s difficult and it’s very expensive.
EB: Because getting the lenticulars cut to those specific shapes is so bespoke?
JR: You have to work on a relatively large scale to make it work. I’ve invested a huge amount of time and energy and money doing the ones I’ve done. Suspending double-sided pieces, positioning those in space, having them rotating, having them animate. No one is doing it; or very few. There’s a big piece in an airport I think.
EB: A wall that transitions?
JR: No, it’s a mobile. As they move, they change colour; Genius.
EB: A chandelier.
JR: Basically, or a mobile. Whereas I’m trying to make physical objects that exist in two spaces, not virtually, it’s right in front of you. Lying on my death bed I want to be able to say I had a good crack at it, at doing with this medium what I could and no one else did. I quite like the fact that it’s one hundred and twenty years old, it’s not a new medium, it’s an old medium, it’s in the same realm of age as photograph, maybe sixty years younger or so. As an artist the best I can do is relentlessly pursue what I know I can do and what I enjoy doing; whether it’s in fashion, whether the nude is in fashion, whether the lenticular is in fashion, or not; for no other reason than I have to do it to stay sane.