Roberts: The New Woman Artist
Until February 25; Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow
Julie Roberts occupies a particular niche in the minds of todays
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 Glasgows
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, Robertss 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.
Robertss early works combined all these factors. A piece of
medical apparatus a dentists 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 Borlands work, both turning the clinical gaze of the
medical establishment back on itself. Robertss 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 Robertss 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
its there; you are always reminded that this is a fiction of
the artists 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 Mackintoshs
building and also to the art schools pioneering attitude towards
female students at the turn of the 20th century. Gone are the isolated
objects of Robertss early works; these are whole scenes from
edge to edge of the canvas. But they retain the otherworldliness which
is typical of the artists work; The Life Room is composed along
medieval principles, the perspectives tipped up and the figures scaled
according to hierarchy rather than naturalism.
Robertss 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
doesnt hold back here from achieving an effect of great visual
richness. If its not too non-conceptual, Id like to see
more of that.
Black, Sunday Herald 14.01.07