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Artist Josh Robbins On 'Natural Abstraction'

09 April 2024
After grabbing a sandwich from Florian, Riley Orange met artist Josh Robbins at Backwoods Gallery. He was setting up a blank canvas in preparation for his interactive workshop. Their polite exchange shifted into a quick-fire round of questions about Robbins' show Brothers & Sisters and his abstract art practice.

Riley Orange: Have you exhibited at Backwoods Gallery before?

Josh Robbins: I’ve been in a couple of group shows here. One straight out of lockdown. It was a show of 300 small typographic pieces that related to our experience at that time.

RO: When I was looking through your work, I wondered about your relationship with memory. You seem to be interested in the idea of shifting perspectives. 

JR: I sort of laugh every time I read that these days. Everyone seems to be working on memory. For me, that idea only comes through in a practical drawing sense, not so much as a core conceptual idea. If I’m not looking at something in the moment I’m drawing it, it’s based on an immediate memory of the composition I’m drawing, not a historical memory.

RO: Would you say you are interested in manipulating memories?

JR: Not really, again, not as a core conceptual idea. My core idea at the moment revolves around what I call ‘natural abstraction’ and creating multiple works from the same source material. The idea is that I use experimental drawing techniques to ‘naturally abstract’ my composition. Whether it be blind drawing, disorienting myself, using sticks or drills to draw with, or getting people to manipulate my body while trying to draw. It’s sort of a challenge to the contrived nature of traditional/historical still life painting and also a bit of traditional (Modernist) geometric abstraction.

Josh Robbins, vase, flowers, plastic owl, black velvet, table legs, dad and imagined gold watch. (pink spacey background) – blind drawing with Luxe holding my arm, 2024, oil and enamel on linen, 130 X 90 cm

Through all of these different drawing techniques, you can still go through each of the different works in each ‘family’ and find the same shapes appearing. I like the idea that you still sort of know what the objects in the paintings are. So, you can relate to it to a degree.

RO: What is the incentive behind that approach?

JR: Freshness is one. And by showing these families of works, I get to take people on a journey of growth and potentiality. If you look at someone like a landscape artist, they are going to train their skills and just get better and better with their technique. I like to jump around a bit more with different techniques and mediums to give each piece its own voice.

RO: So, art is more of an experiment in expression for you than a trained discipline?

JR: I think so. That said, the more you do, the more you’re training yourself in whatever it is you’re doing.

RO: Would you say your art is a private or collaborative exercise?

JR: Both at the moment. I do a lot of solo work in my studio. But I guess it sort of started in 2018, when I was at VCA, I did a project at Birrarung Marr where I set up a still life and invited people to come and paint with my arm. The initial idea was, how could I do a painting, without doing a painting. It was quite intimate. They could paint whatever they wanted but also, through the tension of my arm, I could influence the way they would paint, again as pathway to ‘natural abstraction’. I don’t really like to get into academic art speak, but it also touched on ideas of authorship and ownership as well.  It’s a concept I want to return to, but after COVID, no one is touching anyone. I also get my kids in on it too. They like the one where they get to beat the crap out of me with an assortment of weapons while I draw. It’s very therapeutic.

RO: Do you see your life reflected in your art?

JR: Yes and no. Pretty crap answer, I know. But yes, in the sense that it can’t not be. And no, in the sense that what I’m painting at the moment isn’t a conscious attempt to reflect any particular aspect of my life.

Josh Robbins, monkey, kirby, elmo, duck, hello kitty, stitch, rabbit and cloud (multi colour mono print) – blind drawing from bed, 2024, multi colour pigment mono print on paper, 88 X 70 cm
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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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