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Robin Uleman

Visual artist and graphic designer

Robin Uleman, "Her Room", 2015-2016; "Seismograph", 2021; "My Room", 2015; "Rooftop Sleeper III", 2018; "A Million Thoughts A Million Lives II", 2021; "Submerged III", 2016.

Q: When you make an image, are you aware of it as if it is a public image?

A: Of course, the thought that the image at hand might be shown to the public one day sometimes occurs during the process, but I try to forget it because the work doesn’t benefit from such a thought. It even disturbs a genuine connection to the image, to a particular truth that is at stake at that particular moment. Being too self-aware pushes you out of that moment. So I’d better ignore the thought and work myself into a deeper state of concentration, until all of this self-awareness dissolves and I become a clean and receptive instrument that senses the possibilities occurring in the moment.

Q: If you, as a maker, look at a portrait you have made, do you see a reflection of yourself despite another person in the image?

A: In a way, every portrait is a self-portrait. It’s hard to keep a portrait completely devoid of your traces and idiosyncrasies – probably it wouldn’t be a very good portrait either. To some extent, the other person always acts as a screen for my emotional impressions. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t escape my own viewpoints and consciousness. Nevertheless, if I wouldn’t make the genuine effort to draw my subject from the inside out, I would probably lose the whole point of making it in the first place. In a way making a portrait relates to acting. I must feel the need to submerge myself into the other person’s being, to try and project myself into his or her position, but I realise that this is an illusion. A very powerful and useful illusion though, because despite all its shortcoming subjectivity the pursuit of that illusion can reveal a certain truth. In the end, every portrait says as much about its subject as it says about its maker. It’s about the relationship between two people.

I often portray my wife and sometimes I portray my father. You could say by examining them I examine things in myself. By drawing and painting them I can look at the darker things that I normally keep at bay: difficult thoughts and feelings, stuff that haunts me, disturbs me or depresses me. I touch a certain chord in their being that probably resonates with my expectations and feelings about life. Often my portraits are infused with a consciousness of our limitations, transience, frailty, loneliness and death. I find beauty and comfort in engaging with those topics.

Of course, resemblances become more obvious and visual when I portray my father. In his face, I partly recognise my features that dwindle over the years, which makes me aware of my mortality.

Q: Is there something you always embrace in yourself when making a portrait image?

A: Yes, it’s the understanding of not being able to truly fathom the depths of my loved ones and my inability to fully understand myself. I can only grasp, try, and continue to work on the portrait until it reaches a level of completion where this intimate stranger sends me out after a whole journey together, leaving me a bit empty and melancholic. So this particular awareness gives a certain take on portraiture that probably has its limits.

I preferably portray the person alone, absorbed in his or her world, almost vacant in a way, as if he or she is unobserved. In a self-portrait that’s harder to pinpoint than in a regular portrait. I want to show what people in daily life hide for each other and perhaps hide for themselves altogether. What strikes me in a glimpse, when I enter our living room where my wife is reading or sleeping on the sofa, or early in the morning when I take stock of my face in the bathroom mirror, are always the latest extensions of a life’s history, of the development of a specific package of genes in time, of the emotions and traits we try to hide in public. Observing a person, no matter how close your relationship to that person is, sooner or later gives you the insight that you are only looking at the tip of an iceberg. For that matter, I sometimes portray myself as if I observe someone else, a colleague at work I do not particularly care for. In portraiture, I balance the thin line between the familiar and the strange.

Q: Is a portrait always the outside of an inner world?

A: Although I find the romantic opposition between the outside and the inside somewhat problematic, it’s a helpful vantage point to make a distinction between what we can observe and what is hidden. I’m interested in the unique and irreplaceable connection between someone’s features and someone’s spirit, between physical appearance and psychological presence. It fascinates me how, in an enigmatic way, unique physical appearance connects with the uniqueness of the mind and, with that, the personal drama. The drama one cannot escape from. I try to tune in on that drama, on the tension between what is controlled or hidden and what is revealed unintentionally.

That’s why the skin plays such an important role in my work. I find the skin intriguing. It’s our largest organ and the largest part of its surface is covered by clothes most of the day. It covers and protects everything we consist of: organs, bones, muscles – the whole lot that we will never be able to see during our lifetime unless we suffer from a disease or problem deep in our bodies; then we get a chance to get a glimpse of our insides via X-rays or MRI-scans.

Our skin plays an important role in the perception of our identity, and yet we are hardly aware of this strange membrane that forms the permeable border between the outside world and our inside. It’s our skin in which we take shelter and which reveals us: our health, our age, our history, our genes, our identity, our scars, diseases, the state of our bowels, our emotions, and our mental state. Without clothes or make-up, our skin is beyond our control; it cannot lie or manipulate. You could say: the skin tells the truth.

Q: What is the most important quality to possess as a portrait maker?

A: It depends on your intentions, and on what kind of portrait maker you want to be. I can only speak for myself. I strive to be as honest and true to my observations as I can be, without holding back anything that might be uncomfortable or disturbing for the person I portray, for myself, or the public.

All portraiture, like all art, is a form of fiction, a subjective construct. Historically portraits were often made to remember or glorify someone important. A great portrait painter like Velasquez developed a lifelong intimate relationship with his patron Felipe IV, King of Spain, and was able to both glorify and show his true nature during various stages of his life. His portraits are very specific in the arrangement of power, yet they are endearing, compassionate and make me conscious of Felipe’s isolated position. Looking at these portraits I wonder about Felipe’s personality, about his life. And I wonder about Velasquez’s life. I wonder about the dialogue between the two men. In the end, I can only feel and guess. That’s powerful.

In my work I intend to express the presence of the people I care for, to understand them, to reveal them in all their uniqueness. To watch them carefully. To show what it means to be a specific human being to touch upon what connects us all. I want to approach my subject as close as possible to evoke intimacy as if I was a novelist, to reveal the unconscious stuff that slumbers beneath the surface and bring it to the forefront.

I constantly travel the borders between the other person and myself. I examine intimacy, physical proximity and psychological distance. In the end, I hope to move people I don’t know. The question I sometimes ask is: will a stranger that doesn’t know about the one I portray be able to accept this portrait as a real character, a living person with a history and a complex of thoughts and emotions? Will this stranger be touched by the presence I produce – sometimes with only a piece of charcoal on paper? The ability to create intimacy is a talent a novelist needs to bring alive a character with words. I always wonder whether I can draw and paint like a novelist. I would like to make portraits that have the complexity of characters in a novel. That’s probably impossible. Images have a different potential than words and vice versa. I’m aware this approach has its limitations, it might be completely wrong altogether. But the question behind it is valid; how close can you get to a living human being?

Q: Can you describe your physical working method? Do you work standing, sitting, walking ...? How does your working method help determine the image you produce?

A: It depends on scale and technique. Large drawings and oil paintings I make standing and walking. I work for days on end to complete them. Smaller drawings and watercolours I usually make sitting. Though even with the smaller watercolours I tend to get up after the initial strokes and move around the piece nervously until it’s done. It’s easier to feel my emotional and physical responses when I’m on my feet. My body provides all the right answers to what I perceive and do. Generally, I prefer to put a sheet of paper on the wall and start a larger drawing. The scale forces me to constantly move back and forth. So after a while, I get into a certain rhythm that sends complicating thoughts to sleep and gives way to my intuition. I use music to influence the process as well, it brings me into the proper mood.

But before I begin, I’m pondering a couple of hours on which images might provide the starting point for a new drawing or painting. I select, edit and manipulate in Photoshop and make a lot of prints that I spread on the table. Some work, others don’t. I listen carefully to a feeling or a mood that resonates, and when I detect a lust to explore what’s in the image I decide to use it and start. Meanwhile, I take various sheets of paper from the drawer, trying different shades, tints, sizes and textures, wondering what the proper scale or atmosphere would be and which technique feels most adequate and at the same time feels the most open-ended.

I always wonder what role scale and technique play in evoking gravity, presence and meaning. In experiencing the picture, its physical qualities – like size, material and handwriting – are of equal importance compared to its subject matter. I often work in series in which I explore the different possibilities of the same set of images in various techniques and sizes. It helps me to delve into the different layers of meaning and emotion in the same image. The theme evolves. Sometimes it takes years until I finally let it go.

I’m also curious to observe how the public relates to the work physically. Is it big, even overwhelming, or small? Does one enter the exhibiting space and already see it from a distance or does one hover above it, because the drawing is relatively small and lies in a cabinet or on a table? All these aspects play a part in the experience and impact of the work.


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