Neil Roberts

Buckingham, Robert and Roberts, Neil,

"Retrieving the Lost and Found"

Craft Victoria, Interview, Spring 1994.

Robert Buckingham and Neil Roberts

Neil Roberts was chosen by Kevin Murray to represent the medium of glass in the ‘Symmetry’ exhibition, even though he retired from glass blowing five years ago. Roberts, who lives and works in Queanbeyan, has developed a career as an artist specialising in sculptural work predominantly made from found objects. In a number of telephone conversations and a few facsimiles we discussed his work, his background in the studio glass movement and the group of glass objects he produced for ‘Symmetry’.

ROBERT BUCKINGHAM Your training was as a glass blower but you have moved away from using glass as your major medium and now work with metal, neon, and most recently in found objects in gallery and outdoor installations…why?

NEIL ROBERTS As I developed as a glass practitioner, the work that I found inspiring and, more importantly, challenging, was generally located outside the galleries and critical framework that constituted the ‘glass world’. The specificity of glass was becoming prescriptive, the technical was overriding the conceptual and the intent of the work was subsumed by where it was positioned. I found many exhibitions that I participated in tended to be survey shows–and the only unifying feature was the medium. I was looking for more opportunities to contextualize my work. The move away from glass was a gradual thing–there was no decisive break–these changes just seem to have evolved over the last ten years.

After you left Canberra School of Art you no longer had the access to glass making facilities…how did this effect your approach to glass?

Finishing teaching at the end of 1984 was part of my evolution as an artist. Without access to all the equipment that the School of Art offered and without the fat salary to buy certain materials or processes, I was forced to consider what essential things I needed, to continue to make work. I found that the limitation proved surprisingly productive. It was like trying to find the bare bones of the work and discovering that the structure was more important and more rewarding than the decoration. I wanted to spend less time making and more time thinking about the work so I began by pairing (sic) down the technical problems of making.

How has your training as a glass blower influenced your recent work – in particular the pieces for ‘Symmetry’?

My training, which I think reflects my inclinations anyway, developed my eye for clean form, my attention to details, and my love of process. I know that seems like a contradiction – to profess an inclination for something that I often deny in my work, but that denial actually works by turning my attention to more challenging aspects of my practice. My piece in Symmetry was influenced by my interest in glass more than my training as a glass blower.

Is ‘Cryonic Quintet’ informed by sculpture or glass traditions?

I’d say it’s informed by both traditions – glass, in references to certain object design, in the conceptual links between glass blowing and jazz trumpet, in scale, in its play with light, etc; sculpture, in aspects of its ideas, process and installation. Of course, I’m sure that the demarcations are not that neat.

There were some display problems concerned with ‘Symmetry’ – can you explain these and how you overcame them?

There were logistical problems with my original idea of the glass being on shelves or plinths – problems any exhibition touring multiple venues on a limited budget would encounter. I actually find restriction quite a creative catalyst, and I’m happy with the solution I devised. In retrospect, I think that the stools, platform and beer glasses are more successful than the shelves would have been.

The platform unites the separate pieces. It also acts as a reference to the stage for a band and lends more musicality to the pieces as a group. As single pieces they seem to [be] more like glass objects. The stools and beer glasses extend the references to jazz clubs and they are now integral to the work.

Does the team-like quality of ‘Cryonic Quintet’ have anything to do with the sense of fraternity you experienced in the glass world?

No. It’s much more relative to making music. Although I agree with Kevin Murray’s linking the two processes.

Did you enjoy working with Kevin Murray’s curatorial brief for ‘Symmetry’ and how much did it influence your work?

Yes. It was intriguing and unusual. My piece is essentially my response to that brief. I had begun playing with a few glass stacks as part of my studio work, but only in a very general and inconclusive way. It is also unusual for me to consciously address a material concern (i.e. glass and glass blowing) as part of my subject matter. I responded to Symmetry because the conceptual base was more important than the material presence. It also involved participants from a number of different media which I saw as a healthy trend for craft exhibitions.

How were your pieces constructed?

Initially, I’d stick things together with a hot glue gun, for speed and reversibility, and when I was happy with a particular configuration, I’d redo it with a two-part epoxy glue for strength and durability.

Do you think that it is important that all the bits came from the same opp shop…did you collect them all in one day?

I’m not sure where that idea came from–the bits are from opp shops all over the place (three States, actually) and all over the calendar.

Was it important that the bits were old and machine made rather than hand-made?

It was important that they were everyday glass. It works against the exaggeration of the form and references within the pieces. It’s an ongoing interest for me–simple things, simple actions, no tricks. It was also a part of the jazz reference–basic units (notes) in exceptional combinations.

In your recent exhibition at the Luba Bilu Gallery (June 1984) in Melbourne you exhibited a wide variety of objects and materials–everything from rope quoits to pizza trays, tyres and trowels. The result looked like an accumulation of old machinery and implements artfully arranged. Do you feel that you ‘aesthetise (sic) junk’?

I feel that I draw attention to certain aesthetic qualities that I detect in the things I choose to work with but I hope that this is not all I do. There is a preciseness to my arrangement–a type of ‘studied negligence’–because I am concerned with creating links and associations between the objects I work with. There is a commonality in the things I use. They usually come from tips or junk shops so their worn-out quality gives them a unified patina. I think of them as being at the point of disappearing and I see what I do as an act of retrieval–pulling back that which seems worthless and gone from the world and reinvesting them with a sort of value. I like to think of it as liberating the forgotten fragments of life–a kind of intellectual and physical recycling. For me it is both a political and aesthetic statement. It is about changes in the perception of an object’s status and significance.

The use of found objects questions traditional values about what art is…and likewise what craft is…is it more relevant to either?

After nearly 100 years of this stuff (found objects in art) there is little that is radical. It has its own history and traditions, and the questions it raises about what art is are not longer as critical as other issues raised by other forms of practice or theory such as the reception and place of art in society. Perhaps, given the tradition and pre-eminence of the makers hand within the crafts, the use of pre-existent objects poses other questions for that crafts tradition (as does mechanical production or use of factory labour, etc.)

Do you now see yourself as sculptor, and if so, when was the transition?

If I describe myself as a sculptor, I then face questions about what defines a sculptor. I do not have a grounding in conventional sculptural language, I do not work primarily with the articulation of volume and space, I don’t even work primarily in the round. These would be things a traditional sculptor would address. But I do work with objects, I work with space, I work with the physical properties of things, and I am not a painter, so I guess I have sculptural tendencies! I just say I’m an artist. I started describing myself as an artist around the mid-eighties when I stopped showing exclusively in glass galleries.

Robert Rooney said you ‘can’t seem to leave things as you find them’…do you agree?

I’m not interested in just being a collector and re-locator of things. Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades do not bear constant repetition. I realise that the insertions and connections that I make in my work are subtle and often minimal, but to me they are the essential quality I bring to it.

In a recent review of your work in ‘Art Monthly’, Jim Logan said that “you want to imbue objects with poetic, human associations and to invite viewers to share their recreaction”. Are you a romantic?

Yes. Absolutely. (laughs)

You have said that your process of working is, ‘a search for connections and meanings across disparate objects and various territories’…what connections and meanings, apart from jazz, are in ‘Cryonic Quintet’?

An underlying theme in a lot of my pieces that is becoming more obvious to me recently is the notion of ‘fit’. By this I mean something of a sense of rightness in the connection between things, a possibility of belonging against a lived experience of fracture and dislocation. This is less obvious in the ‘Quintet’ where there is such a strong material matching, but it was a factor in their making that still informs their form and articulation (I’m talking about trying to achieve a seamless flow between one bit and the next, as well as in each piece overall). The other thing that is present in the pieces for me is the pretense (sic) of excess or splendour collapsing under scrutiny (the recognition of domestic bits and pieces, the odd price tag, etc).

Do you like jazz?

No! I listened to a bit of Miles Davis making this work, and some of the contemporary acid jazz like UTE, but I’m not very knowledgeable or appreciative. I tend to like more human voice in my music than a lot of jazz seems to offer.