Believing the strangest things: Charlie Roberts’ Cosmic Hedge
And your prayers, they break the sky in two
Believing the strangest things, loving the alien
At the movies, even period pieces give away when they were made. However meticulous the construction of a historical scene (or for that matter a futuristic one), the look of the thing is locked into the moment of its making, and not the one it is describing. It’s always about the present negotiating a past.
Charlie makes contemporary paintings, when making a painting of the contemporary could be construed as absurd. The medium’s all wrong. But that’s the point. The painting date-stamps itself. It’s of its moment. This year’s iPhone, a Gucci logo pantsuit. And that moment, unknowingly, anticipates its future. Making a space for itself in history. It’s almost a contradiction that the painting survives beyond this here and now, always already anticipating a moment later. But this isn’t documentation for posterity. The sensual pleasure of Charlie’s paintings is that they mark states of being, caught mid-narrative, in the moment. Classical mannerism for millennials.
The painting often knows it’s a painting. Not painting-about-painting, but rather a simultaneous engagement with all the things painting can do. And those things Charlie refers to are part of a bigger picture of accommodation. This is a practice which can take it all on. It’s modernism’s story again and again. When the subject dissipates, where to look but the painting itself?
The paintings reveal a process of learning, about themselves, about their subjects. Like Charlie just looked at something for the first time, in all its strangeness, and wants to bring it into his conversation. Deeply personal and occluded at the same time. Owns it.
There’s a set of tropes, characters, styles and stories which gather here. It’s part of the learning process. Thinking aloud, fantasising, through painting. It’s not appropriation, but maps out a culture that belongs to all of us. We need painters like Charlie to show us that these cultures already belong to us.
This openness doesn’t preclude a wry critique of a new economy of work and play. What does that look like? What drives it? Charlie know where his painting could operate within this. So the Wall Street suit is already making a pact with the devil in American Pastoral . In Young Capital the sexy one in a bikini is reading the Wall Street Journal, while her friend in the floppy hat is immersed in Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century . It’s a book where the stakes are high, proposing a radical new economic order for the world. No contradiction in this context that the solution to global inequality could be explored at the beach. It’s so often about those contradictions.
If we learned anything from Warhol it is that everything must carry the same weight. You might think a culture of equivalence could play out disastrously. But Charlie’s is an equivalence of enthusiasms, obsessions, passions… The painting is an act of balancing all these things.
There is a cumulative iconography. Things appear again and again, proliferating like memes. Charlie even has his own alter-ego alien, who pops up like Picasso’s minotaur. Almost self-referential, the paintings don’t hesitate long enough to engage with self-portraiture, except, perhaps, in this accrual of incidental observations or images. A sum of experiences; an open scrapbook of encounters.
Or possession through observation. What other points of reference or allusion? From the Renaissance to Matisse via Hammershøi. (Never underestimate the patterns and structures in the background.) And sources can be fresh as you like. In The Consultants , for example, two characters do a Google image search for Louisa Gagliardi. This is the logical culmination of Art History that Aby Warburg predicted in his Mnemosyne Atlas . That simultaneity and equivalence again. Nostalgia for the right now.
Fandom is a big part of this. This is a particular condition of the artist at work. Part negotiation, all desire. It’s an act of faith. Everything can be mediated into the paintings. They are about sex, death, glamour, money, race, gender, work, leisure. Inhabiting subcultures, driven by shared affinities. History, then, looks backward and forward from the moment of Charlie’s painting. And it’s all equally legitimate in Charlie’s world. Because in a post-copyright economy you don’t even need to think about Duchamp. It’s all up for grabs.
London, April 2019