Justin Robertson: Paintbrushes and Partying

Words by: Ben Raven
Posted: 28/2/18 17:56

Photo credit: Lawrence Watson

As the UK acid house stalwart approaches 50, he’s begun to reveal a new side to his artistic talents in the visual arts realm and expands his thoughts for Ibiza Voice on the ever growing niche of DJs working on visual art.


Art and music have always been inexorably linked. From 12” sleeves to flyers, electronic music is often at its best when the visual senses are being as stimulated as the aural. In recent years, a fresh crop of DJs experimenting with the visual form have muddied the waters between visual art and music even further. Justin Robertson, one of the UK’s most influential DJs and producers, is as famous for his acclaimed work as a remixer - for the likes of Noel Gallagher or Björk - as he is for his own production and DJing.

Without any formal training to fall back on, over the past three years he has also recently begun to show his visual art, a mixture of drawings and paintings that have appeared in shows in his native Manchester, as well as Leeds and London. We asked him what draws DJs like him and other celebrated artist spinners like Craig Richards or Andrew Weatherall to the world of paint and canvas.


Ibiza Voice: Tell us about how your visual artistic side began?

I’ve never had any formal training as such, beyond art lessons at school, but it is something I’ve dabbled in on the quiet for a while. It was only when I felt that the work was demonstrating some coherence as a collection of ideas that I thought I would show it to people. 

The real turning point came quite by accident. My computer had a meltdown and I was unable to record any music for a good few weeks. At the same time I’d been working on a collection of oil paintings of imagined creatures and reading a lot of philosophy books that were leading me to appreciate the turbulent nature of existence. It was basically an anti-mechanistic, anti-deterministic project with monsters! It looked like a body of work with a strong narrative too it, so i showed it to a couple of friends who run a gallery, really just for an opinion, and they asked me to show with them. So with a deep breath I took the plunge!


Can you summarise what you've been up to recently and have coming up?

A busy year is in store! On the art side, I have a new show coming up and there will be a host of talks and musical events that will run alongside it during that time. Music wise, I’ve just done a remix for The Rapture’s Vito and Druzzi’s new project Mother of Mars, and a remix of the next single from Noel Gallagher’s band 'High Flying Birds.' I have an EP coming out in a month or two with Silicone Soul.

I'm finishing off a soundtrack to a vampire film and writing new Deadstock 33s material for release later this year. [There are] lots of interesting DJ engagements [ahead], and for the first time, I am curating my own stage at a festival, Alfresco in May. I am continuing my monthly show for Soho Radio, 'The Temple of Wonders' where I explore the more esoteric corners of the musical cosmos. I’m writing a book, but who knows when that will finish! Its taking on a life of its own, but I’m loving writing it. 


How did art and music develop through childhood and later your DJ career?

I’ve never learnt either music or art, but I have studied it through experience. I just dived in and hoped for the best! Music was something that was such a part of me from an early age; the clothes, the haircuts (when i had any hair to cut), the whole cultural immersion of being into it. I would check the influences of my favourite artists, what they read, what they listened to, what they wore, and from that I gradually formed my own identity.

My influences always came from lots of different places, I’ve never been a purist, though i quite admire people who are. When it comes to art, I’m no expert, but I need my fix, it’s possibly the most essentially human activity there is. In my childhood, drawing and painting were my favourite ways to tell stories, I was an only child so spent a lot of time inside my own head. I still do i guess, travelling about DJng can be quite a solitary existence at times.

That time gives me a chance to work on stuff. Most of the last two collections have been derived from sketches I worked on during my travels. 


Justin Robertson and Andrew Weatherall, talking art at his 'The Explorer's Chronicle' show. Credit: Jake Davis

Do they feed off each other? Do you turn to one if the other isn't happening?

Absolutely yes. When I find myself shouting at Logic in the studio, it’s time to pick up a pencil! I really enjoy all aspects of the creative process, writing, painting, making music. They all feed into the same need to discuss ideas, that is part entertainment, part exorcism. So i guess I follow many paths, like a chaotic rambler. 


How does your brain work? Do you think about music in a visual way and does one ever influence the other?

The great question of our time is ‘how does the brain work?’ I have no idea. But the key is that any brain isn't isolated from its environment or the body it occupies. So I guess I’m absorbing images and sounds that I encounter and trying to make some sense out of them.

In terms of how I work, again I’m not sure I know exactly! I suppose I like there to be a story or an underlying point to things. That sounds funny when you listen to some acid banger I’ve knocked up. It doesn’t feel high concept [art], but then again the gathering of people to share collective joy, is one of the most profound activities going.

I do try and visualise music being played in a specific place and time, so in that sense it is visual. Sometimes music can be the soundtrack to an imagined film, it’s a cliché for sure, but I think it’s a valuable approach for some things. I created a soundtrack to my last exhibition ‘The Explorer’s chronicle’ so the images fed directly into the music on that occasion. I wanted the music to reflect the odd psychedelic, counter intuitive world I had sketched out for the show.


How do you divide your time between music, art and writing?

I like to write first thing in the morning. The quiet and the coffee tend to focus the mind. I might work on finishing some art stuff then too. I often work when I travel, at least on ideas, then finish them off or develop them when I’m back in the studio.

Music is something of an afternoon activity when I’ve loosened up a bit, and the neighbours are out. But none of this is a routine and they all flit and change about daily. Sometimes deadlines dictate the working week, but I hate rushing things. I’ve learnt to be more considered and take my time. That’s in contrast to my 90s self who was always in a hurry.


Craig Richards is another artist DJ, who fell into DJing by accident while an art student at St Martins. Have you encountered many other artist DJs? Is there a common theme in your careers?

I think it’s he constant struggle to avoid getting a proper job! I can think of a few great artists who are DJs or DJs who are artists. Jonnie from Optimo is a very accomplished artist with gallery representation.  Andrew Weatherall, of course, I love his woodcut stuff and his prints are tops. Craig’s Show of Heads from Houghton was brilliant, shame it wasn’t on for longer. Maybe both disciplines are about sharing? Sharing a vibe or a feeling. Sometimes confrontational but always attempting to be interesting.

For my own part I wouldn’t say my work is avant-garde or particularly difficult. I’m really looking to start a discussion, but at the same time attempting to produce something aesthetically pleasing, a kind of disorientating pattern of beauty. It’s the same with the music I play, I guess. I try to present serious music in a non-serious/knees up manner. I’m not seeking to repel anyone or to shock people. That is a valuable approach but, it’s just not an approach I favour for my stuff.  

Justin Robertson's 'The Aquatic Portal.'

What's the piece of visual art your most proud of?
I don’t really have a favourite, or at least it changes from time to time!  But I wanted to share ‘The Aquatic Portal’ with you.

I have two quite different approaches to my pieces, at least for the last show, ‘The Explorer’s Chronicle’.  All of them start as pencil drawings, sometimes figurative characters or odd creatures and these will often just end up staying like that, figurative pieces. But sometimes I like to take small sections from works, and then subject them to varying processes to prize out the hidden patterns and shapes.  

This particular piece is a kind of Jungian mandala [a graphical representation of the self], a device for attempting to create psychic wholeness. So it speaks of the therapeutic aspects of art and the attempt to create balance and order in a chaotic universe. It also represents a deep, pan-psychic consciousness at work at a hidden micro level, as if you could go down to the most basic units of the universe and find a little face smiling back at you.

I cut out a small segment of patterns from one of my larger pieces, which I then photographed to give it shade and separation from the source. I took that photograph into the computer and added some digital fiddling before printing that out. When this basic guide was printed, I went in and added colour and the dark black with ink and paint. 

Are there any parallels between the art and music industries?

I wouldn’t say I’m part of either as such. I’m at the start of my artistic journey in many ways, even though I’m nearly 50. I’ve done the last couple of shows for ‘The Explorers Chronicle’ off my own back with the help of Russell Brown, my manager, rather than with a gallery as such.

I just wanted to present the work exactly how I wanted, and although, thankfully, the pictures have sold really well, I’m still a bit outside that world to some extent. That’s not to say I wouldn’t work with the right gallery, in fact this year’s show will be a bit more along those lines, but with a twist.

As far as the music industry goes, I try to avoid all the business side whereever possible. It doesn’t interest me very much. I’m not so naive as to think it’s not important, I’ve got to try and pay the bills after all, but without sounding too pretentious, I think making art that you believe in, without compromise or a committee of accountants, makes for better art? Pretty obvious maybe? Perhaps that’s why i haven’t got a golden yacht? 

Photo Credit: Sebastian Manox.

Does hedonism influence art like perhaps it has music? 

It’s been a while since i was hedonistic! But yes, for sure. Both art and music are part of the Dionysian urge that’s an essential part of humanity. There are some good reasons to suggest that our ancestors from the upper Palaeolithic times would ingest consciousness altering substances and head into the deep caves to commune with the spirits and create beautiful cave paintings. Not quite like a night at Pacha, but a bit like a few parties I’ve been to.

If you are after creating some kind of transcendental experience, then it helps if you’ve had a couple yourself I guess? Nietzsche said: “There are two states in which man arrives at the rapturous feeling of existence, namely in dreaming and in intoxication.” That’s of course if you aren’t too smashed to know what’s going on, or remember what it felt like the next morning. But art is in some ways just dreaming given physical form, as Odilon Redon puts it “place the visible at the service of the invisible,” so an exploration of different mind states might help that process, or you might just chuck paint about with wild abandon? 


Visual art has always played an integral part at raves or on sleeves, but there are more and more environments where art and music are colliding like Houghton or Burning Man. Is this a trend or should it be?

I wouldn’t say it was new at all. I think going right back to ancient, even prehistoric times music and art have been inseparable. Though I’m totally up for any new ways to enjoy both at the same time, and not just visual art, but chat about politics, poetry writing, whatever really. I think anything that demystifies things and gets discussion going is to be applauded.

Art in its broadest sense is an expression of the human condition whether that be anger, bewilderment, joy or ecstatic pleasure, it doesn’t belong to an elite or a group of specialists. Not everyone will like everything, thank goodness, but to be immersed in it whilst charging about the place with your pals, is the best thing ever. 


To view and buy Justin’s art, please click here.

Justin Robertson headlines Alfresco Festival in May.  Ahead of the event, there are a series of warm up events including boat parties on March 9 with Justin. For more info click here. 

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