Of the work of American icon Grant Wood, take the staid character expressions, strip out the traditional rural backdrops and wooden houses, and mix it with the monotypical palette of a Victorian daguerreotype, then one might end up with the work of Bobbie Russon. Russon’s skill as a painter takes the viewer through a journey which proffers paintings not too dissimilar, in tone, to the nature of 19th century photography: the infant photography’s novelty as an art form led to a celebration of family portraits, with expressions indicating a century-long bout of prude-wearing countenances and expressions of the never-seen-since miserable smile. No frills, no fancy attitudes, just plain old mean portraiture. These expressions are also found in the working class farmers of 20th century Wood’s mid-western gothic families, albeit with more pastel coloration to their sunken cheeks, which is where—between Grant Wood and Victorian daguerreotypy—Russon’s work can be found; straddling the boundary in terms of expression, but of course without the implication of the absence of painterly expertise that half of this comparison perhaps elicits.
For the subject of many of her paintings, the innocence of childhood contrasts against gloomy and sparsely furnished interiors; indeed, the expressions of the children themselves rail against the essence of romantic depictions of childhood as a period of uncertainty, yet nonetheless care-free feelings and simple lives burnished by even simpler adventures. In one example of her work, though, we find a young girl wearing dungarees ( a fitting sartorial comparison to the attire of Wood’s farmers), with a distorted face: large eyes and a shrunken forehead—the enlarged eyes being the only real semblance of the traditional rabbit in the headlights view of childhood ignorance.
Jemma Hickman of bo.lee gallery—the gallery which also represents artist Wanda Bernadino—wrote a short précis of Russon’s up-coming exhibition Hinterland, in which she explains:
Bobbie, now the mother of three children herself, uses these [childhood] experiences as fuel for her brooding works. Her paintings reference sights, smells and memories of her childhood— feelings of being trapped, times of sadness and loneliness, but also an excitingly unconventional upbringing full of creativity.
But what of these childhood experiences? Russon herself looks back and comments: ‘early childhood was a very transient existence and at times a lonely one, confined to dingy London bedsits with no siblings and no chance to put down roots and make friends’, however even with this self-appraisal by the artist, there are plenty of other—viewer-led—interpretations which furnish her works.
With childhood stripped to the sparsest of detail, one cannot help but notice that this contrasts greatly with underhand media tactics appertaining to the over-sexualisation of childhood, be it due to the constant bombardment of you-should-look-like-this imagery, or through the ‘adultification’ of childhood celebrity—aiming instead to subvert these methods by providing the alternate extreme of the spectrum, removing nearly all but one facet of childhood—the toy.
Russon’s choice works will be exhibited at Hinterland; loosely interpreted in a temporal sense as the land which came before the present, rather than its regular spatial meaning. This exhibition will take place at bo.lee gallery between the 26th of November (private viewing Thursday 26th, 6-8pm) with regular viewings following by appointment only at the bo.lee studio at 4 Dunstans Road, East Dulwich SE22 0HQ until the 13th of December. More information can be found on the bo.lee gallery website.
With such a curious take on childhood, no doubt fans of Bobbie Russon and her work will look forward to her later paintings, which we can only surmise with a tentative wait, will explore later facets of her life in the same unique, painterly style. Nous attendons avec impatience!