Neil Roberts

Brennan, Anne,

"Neil's practice"

Article, November 1999.

Anne Brennan

Until comparatively recently, an artist could expect to spend no more than a few years in Canberra before moving on to the bigger cultural centres of Sydney or Melbourne: this city’s art scene was simply too small and its resources too limited to sustain a practice here for any length of time. When he arrived in Canberra in 1983, Neil Roberts seemed set to follow a similar path. As a young glass artist with some teaching experience at Sydney College of the Arts, he had been approached by the new head of the Glass Workshop at Canberra School of Art, Klaus Moje, to come and teach on a two-year contract. However, at the end of his contract, Neil had only moved as far as Queanbeyan, and has been firmly rooted there ever since.

Things have changed for artists in Canberra over the intervening years since Neil came to live here, and in many ways his career both reflects those changes and has often facilitated them. Take his Queanbeyan home, studio and occasional gallery space, Galerie Constantinople, for example. In 1987, he and fellow artist eX de Medici turned the front part of this former glass factory into an artists’ space in which they ran an occasional exhibition and events program. The decision to do this sprang partly from the dearth of exhibiting spaces available in Canberra, but also because the space afforded a wonderful site for the exploration of their own artistic interests. The program which they ran together, and which Neil has continued to run on his own, has been idiosyncratic, sporadic, democratic and completely subject to whim. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Galerie Constantinople has hosted some memorable events, and the role call of artists who have participated in his two-day exhibitions often included well-known names like Narelle Jubelin, Anne Ferran and Tess Horwitz sharing the same billing with poets, critics and thirteen-year-old daughters of friends.

Although Canberra now boasts a number of alternative artists’ spaces and cooperative workshop initiatives, Neil still offers the space to interested artists to undertake weekend exhibitions and performances, creating a valuable space for more speculative, temporal or experimental projects to unfold. In more recent years, he has undertaken a number of projects under the umbrella of Galerie Constantinople, including Multiple Constantinople, an ongoing portfolio of multiple prints made by an invited selection of artists on his old spirit duplicator. The first in this series was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia.

Neil’s practice is inseparable from notions of community of one sort or another. His work with Constantinople is only part of a broader commitment to the visual arts scene in Canberra. For a number of years he was an energetic member of the board of the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, and was also closely involved in the running of Bitumen River Gallery in Manuka. Bitumen River no longer exists, but has been replaced by the small CCAS exhibition space in Furneaux St, which continues the commitment to exhibiting a broad range of voices and practices upon which Bitumen River was founded.

More recently, Neil has created a substantial career as a public artist in Canberra. Most people will know his neon works House Proud (1998) on the Playhouse Theatre and The Fourth Pillar (1997) in the ACT Magistrates Court. These works were preceded by the spectacular commissioned work, Flood Plain, in which he floated an irrigator bearing neon text in Nerang Pool for the 1990 Floriade. This development in Neil’s practice can be attributed to the uniquely paradoxical condition of the Canberra visual arts scene. On the one hand, Canberra has grown into a self-confident and intelligent cultural community which is ready for, and expects, a visible public art program. On the other hand, the city and its visual arts infrastructure are small enough that the kind of employment opportunities which artists expect in bigger cities, such as teaching, are limited. For artists such as Neil, who are not regularly employed by one of the major visual arts institutions, Canberra’s public art program has provided the opportunity to shape their careers in another kind of way.

Neil possesses the temperament and inclination for public art commissions. He is exceptionally well-organised, unflappable and affable — attributes which have stood him in good stead in his other role as visual arts events organiser. He was the indispensable coordinator of the major CCAS project Archives and the Everyday in 1997, but his most public moment ever came about in his role as coordinator of the 1995 Canberra National Sculpture Forum. In a spectacularly public series of encounters, he fielded the stormy reaction to Greg Taylor’s sculpture Phil and Liz Down By the Lake, the most memorable moment of which came when every TV network in the country endlessly re-played his tug-of-war with an irate monarchist who was attempting to cover the naked royal breasts with a T-shirt.

If it is true that in the sixteen years that Neil has been part of the art community of Canberra he has watched that community change and grow, it is equally true that the community has watched his life and practice grow, too. Over the years, his always thoughtful practice has moved slowly away from his initial discipline, glass, to encompass sculpture, drawing and installation. His interest in the found object has been a recurrent theme for some years, reaching its apogee in the exhibition Tiny Idols Heaped in Piles, the culmination of his 1995 Inaugural Creative Arts Fellowship at the CCAS. His work has been consistently informed by his interest in the rituals, languages and culture of masculinity, his most recent body of work dealing with how these issues are played out within the codes of male sporting rituals. At the same time, it seems that his interest in the way in which objects circulate in society, and the transformative processes to which he subjects them, can be directly linked to his early history as an object-maker.

Neil’s practice has been shaped by several periods of time spent overseas – as an artist in Residence in the Australia Council studio in New York in 1989 and as an artist in residence at Art Lab in Manila in 1991. Both of these experiences have been formative for him, linking him into cultural developments at a regional and international level. Canberra has also benefited from these times abroad, as he has hosted a number of informal visits from artists whom he met on his travels. Worthy of special mention are the memorable exhibition at Galerie Constantinople by Filipino artist Jose Legaspi in 1991 and Neil’s collaborative project, also at Constantinople, with American artist Stephen Paul Day in 1993.

Neil is currently developing a body of work which has been funded by an Australia Council New Work grant. The Capo Fellowship will give him the time and resources to extend and consolidate this period of focussed work and experiment. Despite the opportunities and challenges that big commissions, exhibition opportunities, teaching or collaborative projects have afforded him, he remains convinced that the opportunity which the Capo Fellowship provides to buy time in the studio is the most precious experience he could ask for.

There is no doubt that the federal government likes the idea that private sponsorship might make a significant contribution to arts funding. However, even if industry were willing to undertake more sponsorship roles, it is unlikely that private sponsorship will ever play more than a tiny role in funding the complex needs of the arts industry in Australia. Given this, it is a heartening experience to see the productive sponsorship model which Capo offers. Funded entirely by the energy of Canberra’s business and arts communities and focussed around a single annual fundraising event, Capo has managed in the — years of its existence to raise $1,000,000.00, almost all of which, with the exception of the part time salary of its coordinator, goes directly to benefit the lives and careers of artists in the Canberra community. In the Capo fellowship we see the way in which Canberra’s small size can work for it, mobilising the energy and enthusiasm of its community to bring substantial benefits and opportunities to its artists and its cultural life.