Neil Roberts

Sutton, Pollyanna,

"From torn paper, art surfaces"

The Canberra Times, Review, 29 January 1987.

Pollyanna Sutton

Local artist Neil Roberts is something of a bowerbird. His latest exhibition Transit of Shadows at the Arts Council Gallery, Gorman House, shows his resourcefulness through his collection of drawings on large sheets of bituminised paper, one of which is framed by scrap tin.

Roberts is perhaps better known for his work with glass and sculpture. The drawings are the culmination of a couple of years of work, described by him as part of a personal growth and development which is ongoing. He first began working with the paper 18 months ago when he found some rolls of it at Reverse Garbage in Sydney. There was a period of trial at his Queanbeyan studio where he perfected a way of painting on the paper without it curling up.

“The change my work has gone through has been caused by my seeking for something,” he said. “That challenges me. It is the challenge of having something to express and be able to express it as potently as possible. I just kept moving. The drawings started without any conclusion. I felt really tight in the way I imagined things, particularly with glass which is such a contrived medium.”

The bituminised paper provides an interesting medium and Roberts has played on its texture and layers. He has torn through the surface to reveal fibreglass threads and the black bitumen and then painted images on the surface.

“I liked the surface quality. I have never used material in a tradition way. Not being a trained painter. I pick things up and learn about them as I go, particularly the surface quality, which is almost ephemeral, and evokes an emotional response in the torn paper and the fact that the paper could be opened up to reveal other textures or surfaces. The fibreglass thread can be taken out of the bitumen or left in for a grid effect, which is interesting graphically and has a strong emotional element.”

Thirteen of the works have been sewn to a backing sheet and hung from eyelets rather than in a traditional frame. Roberts said that apart from the prohibitive cost of framing he thought the tarpaulin-like presentation did not contradict the nature of the material.

Ninety per cent of the shapes in Roberts’ work are torn; all the gestures, movements and shape (sic) have “happened” in the act of tearing. “I have become quite a skilled tearer. But you are never able to be relatively controlled about tearing. You can’t plan a lot, it depends on the paper. Many of the earlier works had imperfections in the paper where half of the roll hadn’t been bituminised, so half has a different texture and colour. That’s when I think it resembles collage because it responds to a set of given elements.”

When Roberts began the works he had no particular inspiration or frame of reference. However, he has named each of the works after a chapter in the book My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola. According to Roberts, the book tells the story of a young boy who is trapped in the Bush of Ghosts for 24 years where he is owned by a succession of tribes of ghosts, before escaping and being reunited with his family. Titles of the works include Spirit of Prey, On The Queer Way To Homeward, Invisible Magnetic Missive Sent To Me From Home, This is What Hatred Did and Bad-Bye Function. He said the book had also inspired musicians Brian Eno and David Byrne.

“Like dreams I feel I am in another world, another place,” Roberts said. “When I read things into the torn paper, I go in with paint and bring them out. I felt I couldn’t have imagined the things that I draw. It is fantastic for me, for someone who felt they couldn’t annex the depth of their imagination.”

Roberts likened it to sitting back and reading images into cloud formations or inkblots. “Some drawings are quite serious and strange. There seems to be some element which keeps them hopeful…maybe the head, like the spirit of hope which relates to Pandora’s box.”

Roberts said artists could never really see how well works related till they were in a gallery. He had been watching visitors to the exhibition for their reaction to the works and found that they seemed comfortable with the images and read their own stories into them. He freely admits that it is a brazen thing to put up drawings in an exhibition when he has only been dabbling for [a] couple of years.

“I needed to do it and it was great to find a clue. I wanted to start drawing. It has given me a sense of adventure in my work, a definite adventure for me.”