Over the years I have interviewed and profiled many well known designers and artists who work with tiles. None bear comparison to Robert Dawson when it comes to real depth of artistic understanding of tile, or originality when subverting what is generally perceived as “art” or “design”.
Dawson, who works under the pseudonym of Aesthetic Sabotage, produces striking and compelling works using ceramic tile that play with our perception of pattern and texture, while at the same time providing an immediacy and relevance that is rare in the world of fine art.
He also produces site-specific ceramic art in the form of imagery fired onto wall tiling or floor tiling and has completed several public art commissions. Experienced in working with architects and in-house design departments, what singles Dawson out as an artist is the sheer immediacy of his work.
Working with computer-manipulated imagery drawn from both personal experience and historical reference, he produces powerful installations with an unusual combination of playfulness and geometric precision. His moniker – Aesthetic Sabotage – refers to his fascination with twisting, fragmenting and reconstructing familiar patterns and images. One of the other strong themes is ornamentation, from Moorish floor tiles through to more contemporary themes.
“Much of my work with ceramic tiling provides interpretations of familiar-seeming ornamentation that interact with the grid set up by the tiles. Sometimes designs are made according to a theme proposed by the client.”
Getting the commissioning procedure right is vital to Dawson. “The initial meeting with the client will ideally be on site. After seeing the site, having measurements, and knowing what the client wants, I will make the designs. These designs can be entirely my own, or they can be mine from a theme suggested by the client, or they can be from, or include, the client’s drawings, photographs or any other material or ideas that he or she wishes to contribute. The designs will be made using drawing, painting, photography, and possibly computer manipulation of these. The proposed designs will be presented to the client in the form of printouts on paper.”
“The design process takes about two weeks. When the client is happy with the designs, work will start applying the print to the tiles and firing them. If time is short, it is possible to produce about 30 decorated and fired tiles a day, but it is best not to rush things. The tiles will usually be installed by a local professional tile setter engaged by the client, and I would be present to oversee the installation,” continues Dawson.
The design can be made from a theme or images suggested by the client, or based on examples of existing work like some of the examples shown here. They could even be entirely new designs. In each case, the designs will be made specifically for the location in which the tiles are to be installed. The tiling can be functional, such as floor tiling, but it is also highly suitable for murals or decorative wall covering in any interior or exterior, commercial or domestic location.”
Dawson’s commissions have included two ambitious exterior tiled murals for the John Lewis Partnership: one for the Waitrose supermarket in Marylebone on the theme of Hidden Rivers; the other for the John Lewis department store in Nottingham, called Cycle, that alluded to the city’s association with Raleigh bicycles. This, in turn, led to a commission from Nottingham City Council for a series of tile panels for a cemetery featuring images of sea and sky.
Dawson didn’t take up ceramics until his mid-30s. Having dropped out of art school in 1972, he spent seven years as a radio officer on merchant ships. This unusual precursor to life as an artist seems to inform his work.
Dawson did complete a BA in Fine Art and Ceramics at Camberwell in 1993. “On the fine art side I worked with video and painting. On the ceramics side I soon began to work with print, using manufactured tiles and plates. I found it interesting doing both art and craft. Each of these areas fed the other. I found the un-hip low art status of ceramics liberating and I thought why not let this feeling into the fine arts side too.”
Dawson acknowledges the influence of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein on his work. He was attracted to their bold, simply, distorted and technically flawed images achieved using photographic processes. The cinematic nature of large blown-ups also appealed, as well as playing with focus and fading.
Dawson’s work is all about undermining common images. However, although there is clearly a great depth and technical ability behind his work, they are not pretentious. Instead they appear to have been created so that everyone can “get” them.
Dawson occupies a netherworld: neither accepted as part of the fine art community, nor yet a member of the less-regimented world of the craftsman or the pure designer.
This is probably just as well, because it is this vision from left field that makes his work so compelling and powerful.