Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Robert Jesson 1947 - 2015

A few days ago we heard that the artist Robert Jesson had died in February of last year in Tauranga. Anyone who knew Robert in the 1980s also knew they were in for a ride whenever they met up with him. As a sculptor Robert had something of a meteoric rise in the New Zealand art system. One minute he was exhibiting in Ray Castle’s Upper Queen Street Closet Gallery and the next he was showing fully-formed at Peter McLeavey.

Robert's work in New Zealand careened from large heavy works hewn by chainsaw to what became his iconic star-shaped forms. The most spectacular version were the two he attached to the wall of a Wellington building as part of an art for space deal. We were there as Robert signalled the cranes to place the two large (and heavy) objects onto their holding bolts. One of them wouldn't quite fit and Robert made a snap judgement to shift it along and up a bit. The guys on the crane who worked in millimeters rather than near-enough were amazed at his confidence. In the end everything was bolted into place even if Robert did mention that one of the nuts was just glued on. ‘Is that a problem?’ we asked, ‘well not one of mine,’ Robert told us. Of course he knew the installation was over-engineered in the first place, as was discovered by the crew that struggled to take it down some years later.

Robert Jesson gave up art almost as abruptly as he became a local star. Having moved to Melbourne in 1988 and continuing to work and show there, he announced to his wife Margaret that he had nothing left to say as an artist. And that was that. He was not interested, he said, in simply making something pretty just to sell.

Once when he was staying with us in Wellington a rather more buttoned-up artist came to visit with transparencies of his work immaculately presented in professional slide holders. Robert snorted and left the room. A few minutes later he was back asking if we'd like to see some of his slides. Before we could answer he poured a bunch of them onto the couch out of a creased brown paper bag. Buttoned-up had never seen anything so no-frills in his life.

For the third act of his life Robert and Margaret went sailing. The last time we heard from him they were in Japan. 'Currently in Japan. Next stop Philippines, Borneo and Malaysia.' We'd written a post about the relocation of those star forms and he wanted to tell us that he wasn't bothered by it. 'As far as I'm concerned' he wrote, 'once it's sold, it's pretty much forgotten.' That was definitely our Robert Jesson,
head up, a grin on his face and moving forward.