Rosanne Robertson’s Subterrane uses both the ruggedness and fluidity of the West Cornish coastline to celebrate the beauty of queer bodies and gender non-conformity, writes Catherine Howe.
‘You treated my stone self as a wound that needed loving healing’
‘Only you could melt this stone’
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (1993).
Subterrane is the first London solo exhibition of Rosanne Robertson (b. 1984, Sunderland). The title encompasses the artist’s preoccupation with the natural landscape and the circumstances faced by so many LGBTQIA+ people, even today, of being forced into a hidden existence underground. Relating to this, Robertson’s wide-ranging practice – across drawing, painting, sculpture and performances for camera – is intensely personal, exploring queer bodies and gender nonconformity, celebrating them out in the open and countering their prejudiced characterisation as ‘unnatural’. Based in West Cornwall, the influence of Robertson’s surroundings can be felt in works dominated by the vivid blue of the sea, the shapes and surfaces of the coastline and a particular clarity of light. The artist has worked at Porthmeor Studios in St Ives, where Francis Bacon painted in 1959, and certainly continues the legacy of queer art in Cornwall, such as the trailblazing abstractions of Marlow Moss and Ithell Colquhoun’s surrealist explorations of nature. However, Subterrane conveys a sense of place and identity that is entirely Robertson’s own.
Automatism was central to the creation of Robertson’s works on paper in the show, a technique used by the surrealists who wished to do away with control and reason, and instead explore their unconscious desires and harness chance in order to achieve freedom. In the series of islands, including Island (departing) (2021) and Island (anchored by mud) (2021), the transformation of the land by sea is conveyed, with both serving as shape-shifting surrogates for the human body and revealing the automatism of nature. The works equally evoke detritus emerging on the shore at low tide, their brown expulsions and greying contorted forms akin to waste, as well as the abjection of queer bodies. The queerness of automatism is also important, for it strips us of societal constraints upon gender and sexuality. Almost island (2021) is perhaps the most recognisable nude, where dynamic pink and fleshy curves break free into surrounding blue, both of which are shades associated with gendered stereotypes. Two stack works, Stack (surrounded) (2021) and Stack (sub) (2021) appear to relate to the destructive forces of nature and human oppression and persecution, and consist of angular contortions and fragmented body parts half-submerged in the water and threaded together with veins and linear gouges.
Another grouping of six rectangular works on board more clearly explores eroticism and the fusion of bodies through their proximity to land and sea. In We kind of welded together (2021), sweeps and drips of blue and flesh-toned gouache intimately touch and swirl, tenderly collapsing the boundary between the self and the other; while Come full circle (2021) is dominated by a white and translucent expanse that suggests ejaculatory fluids, its curved opening a bodily orifice. The use of sandstone and red mud, prevalent throughout the works on paper, here connote excrement and blood. All of these aspects of Robertson’s practice recall the work of gay male artists from the postwar period; not only Bacon’s violent explorations of the figure in space, but the abstracted bodies of David Hockney and Keith Vaughan’s bathers, the latter another artist who frequented Cornwall. Yet Robertson develops their predecessors’ tactics of ambiguity, often used to disguise homosexual desire when it was illegal for men in Britain, repurposing them to represent the instability of gender and sexuality more broadly for queer people, and offering freedom from the constraints they face.
Robertson has spoken of the importance of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) to their practice, a ground-breaking novel that explores lesbian and transgender experience. Given this, the prevalence of blue across their work may be interpreted as a reference to the struggles of LGBTQIA+ people. The term stone butch, referring to a highly masculine woman or gender nonconforming person who prefers not to be touched, resonates with their interest in the transmutability of stone in the landscape. This is further evident in The bedrock crumbled (2021) and Melt this stone (2021), the last title a quote from Feinberg; oozing blue and brown, both works suggest the simultaneous destruction and creation of standing figures or rocks through forms intimately piling upon one another. The sensuous interlocking shapes of Looking in the other’s mirror (2021) create a violent penetration, equally resembling the tending of open wounds. The use of doubling and protrusions that almost touch towards the middle of the work fits with the connection of queerness with mirroring throughout art history, as in the practice of the gender nonconforming surrealist Claude Cahun, who repurposed the pathological association of same-sex desire with narcissism in psychoanalysis to explore and celebrate it instead. In Looking in the other’s mirror, the glass is broken, a tidal wave in Narcissus’ pool. Developing upon this, in Suddenly a wave (2021), the body becomes engulfed by the water or ecstatically dissolves in it. In all six works, we are faced with a shattering of selfhood, akin to when sea destroys stone and reveals its soft fragility, in spite of its masculine hardness.
In Robertson’s performance for camera, Packing (2020), a title that refers to altering the appearance of one’s crotch to create a phallic bulge, the artist is first viewed from above, as in the aerial views of some of their works on paper. They stand in the water between two expanses of rock, running their fingers through their wet hair, an echo of the strings of seaweed draped over their body and white vest. Throughout the performance, trickling water and crashing waves are heard, and their face is never visible, adding a level of anonymity and fluidity to the identity of the figure in the landscape. They then lie in the water, stuffed white socks drooping from the tips of their toes and alongside their arms, their entire body flowing with the current in the crevice of the rock, at one with their surroundings. A close-up of their crotch focuses in on a pair of brilliant turquoise sports shorts that catch the light like ripples in water, their waistband offset with a label reading ‘MANSTORE’, while a phallic length of seaweed protrudes from them, extending up the artist’s vest-clad torso and down into the water. In combining signifiers of masculinity with nature, which is often associated with femininity, the gender binary liquifies, and the landscape is rendered a space of freedom and safety.
Once again, in Packing, one might be tempted to draw connections with gay male visual culture due to the incorporation of sports clothing, but its wider queer significance, particularly for lesbians, transgender and non-binary people is brought to the forefront, relative to the artist’s own experiences. The theme of bathing also fits more broadly with a pleasurable dissolution of the self, along with the washing away of trauma, giving rise to a kind of queer baptism. The performance closes with the artist’s perspective, a view of the landscape from between their legs, flaccid damp socks still visible, serving to frame the scene. A strip of light reflected upon the water becomes a phallic stand-in. As Robertson has noted, the perspective is reminiscent of Colquhoun’s painting Scylla (1938), a surrealist double image comprising a self-portrait of the artist’s legs in the bath that can be interpreted as a view of two rocks in the sea, two touching erect penises or a vulva. Robertson likewise plays with these connotations, continuing their interest in automatism in relation to the queer body and the landscape.
The most striking work in Subterrane is Torso (my cotton, filled with cold steel) (2021), a biomorphic form in steel and jesmonite, created to a human scale, with the same white vest, socks and blue shorts as Packing. In keeping with the theme of Subterrane, undergarments normally hidden beneath clothing are in full view. Stretched and draped upon the sculpture, they serve as a stark contrast to the cold and hard steel abstraction, lending it human warmth and tactility. Stuffed socks dangle suggestively from beneath the vest, drawing attention to the similarities between packing and sculpture. Returning to Stone Butch Blues, the importance of clothing for queer identity is frequently mentioned, for it offers safety and defence; leather jackets are perceived to be armour and an especially stone butch woman purportedly wears a raincoat in the shower. Connecting to this, Torso (my cotton, filled with cold steel) reverses the association of strength and masculinity with steel, using clothing as soft armour, protecting against the violence of binary gender upon the body. The sculpture also makes use of found objects, including a box of matches and mulch. Along with the use of sea-blue paint, this nods towards a transformation of the elements, in line with surrealist preoccupations with alchemy, its links to the figure of the androgyne also in keeping with Robertson’s work. Subterrane, then, proves Robertson to be a force of nature, confidently and consistently exploring the themes of gender fluidity and LGBTQIA+ liberation across multiple mediums. Their work revels in the instabilities of the body and the environment, revealing their inherent queerness.
Subterrane by Rosanne Robertson was shown from 7 October – 18 December at Maximillian William, London. Click here for more information about the exhibition and here to visit Rosanne Robertson’s website.
Feature image: installation view of Subterrane by Rosanne Robertson at the Maximillian William, London.