Julie Roberts: The New Woman Artist
Until February 25; Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow

Julie Roberts occupies a particular niche in the minds of today’s art-world cognoscenti. Although there is no doubt that she is a painter – the Welsh-born artist is celebrated for her finely-executed oil paintings – many are particularly keen to focus on her conceptualist credentials. A small solo show on the third floor of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art affords us the chance to decide for ourselves.

Roberts trained at Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s, in the shadow of the New Glasgow Boys. Their bold figure painting had caused an international wave of excitement, but in its wake, students were suffering anti-climax. Reacting against the excesses of their brash, intuitive forebears, Roberts’s generation turned away from figurative painting, embracing the theoretical rigours of conceptual art.

Roberts stayed with figurative painting, but her approach had more in common with her pioneering peers than it did with her painting predecessors. She shared with her fellow-students – the likes of Christine Borland and Douglas Gordon – an interest in feminism and in the writings of Michel Foucault. She participated with them in the early days of the Transmission gallery. Her work was heavily based on research, just like theirs, and she too looked for an emotionally detached form of presentation.

Roberts’s early works combined all these factors. A piece of medical apparatus – a dentist’s chair, a mortuary slab or a strait jacket – would occupy the centre of a large canvas. With only flat colour for a background, all attention was focussed on this fertile symbol of institutional control, the vulnerable human body palpable in its glaring absence.

You can imagine these paintings sitting quite comfortably amongst Christine Borland’s work, both turning the clinical gaze of the medical establishment back on itself. Roberts’s ideas, treatment and subject matter do echo those of her conceptualist colleagues, but to differentiate her from other painters on this basis is misguided.

To say that she is a conceptual painter implies that not all artists are conceptual. Even the Impressionists – who threw themselves into the pleasures of fleeting, surface impressions – were full of daring new concepts. They were at the forefront of discussions about perception, they pushed colour theory to its limits, and they reacted to the new technology of photography which was changing the way memories were recorded.

The fact is that all good painting is conceptual, but it also brings with it something that conceptual artists often try hard to avoid – style. Right from the first, Roberts has had an unmistakeable style of her own. Every surface – whether brick, velvet or skin – is detailed with the same deadpan lines and circles. Though draperies can burst with passages of flowery curls, they never break away from Roberts’ own strict rules of engagement. The weight of her line never varies, and its ends are mechanically precise. Never does she allow herself a flick of the wrist at the end of a curl, or an unpremeditated daub of paint in luscious double thickness.

In some ways Roberts’s style is alluring, the twirls and polka dots of faces and pillows completely decorative in effect. In others, it is repulsive, too controlled and mechanical, the colours evocative of urine, vomit, and nicotine-stained miners’ clubs. It remains absolutely the same whether she is painting her sleeping, beribboned niece, or a disembowelled victim of Jack the Ripper. The constant foregrounding of the paint itself never allows you to forget that it’s there; you are always reminded that this is a fiction of the artist’s making.

Not until recently has Roberts included live figures in her work. In the early days, human beings were notable by their absence. Then, gradually, the artist introduced dead bodies, dolls and mannequins; painting her own nieces asleep was a big step forward. In her latest series, Girls Painting, there are real, live, awake women working in the studios of Glasgow School of Art. But they are stiff and lifeless, the curling, folding smocks more alive than their inhabitants.

The series is in part a homage to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s building and also to the art school’s pioneering attitude towards female students at the turn of the 20th century. Gone are the isolated objects of Roberts’s early works; these are whole scenes from edge to edge of the canvas. But they retain the otherworldliness which is typical of the artist’s work; The Life Room is composed along medieval principles, the perspectives tipped up and the figures scaled according to hierarchy rather than naturalism.

Roberts’s supreme technical skill is shown off to greatest effect in her three large watercolours, and in the slightly older series of pencil drawings. In contrast with the stilted oil paintings, Roberts doesn’t hold back here from achieving an effect of great visual richness. If it’s not too non-conceptual, I’d like to see more of that.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 14.01.07