Neil Roberts

Clark, Deborah,

"Heart of Glass"

Art Monthly Australia, Review, 2 July 2000.

Deborah Clark

Two current exhibitions at the Helen Maxwell Gallery use the medium of glass in the production of works of art: Soft Centres, a show of neon and computer manipulated photographs by Kate Lohse, and Half Ether, sculptures and drawings by Neil Roberts. These exhibitions demonstrate the versatility of glass and its endless sculptural possibilities. Glass can be decorative and exclusive, and utilitarian and common to the point of promiscuity. Neither of the artists has used the medium in a traditional high art mode–their works of art do not have the aura of exquisitely blown or moulded vessels–but neither are they simple re-presentations of functional glass objects; both artists have worked with the medium to produce hybrid and imaginative forms of the familiar and the mundane.

Neil Roberts has constructed his works on found glass, using louvre panes and variously shaped quarter windows from cars. Unlike Lohse’s neons, whose form is directly taken from things-in-the-world, Roberts’ works have a less transparent and more opaque relationship with material culture, and traditional uses of glass. Roberts has employed glass in his art over some years, in a variety of forms, most recently in clear leadlight sculptures which described the shapes and spaces between figures in boxing poses. In this current exhibition the artist continues his interest in boxing as subject matter using an unorthodox medium–toner transfer and charcoal on cement, on found glass. The source materials for the images of boxers are documentary photographs, period pieces whose grainy ambiguity is retained in their re-presentation on the pitted and chalky surface of the cement. The artist has constructed his images from details of the photographs, editing, cropping and fragmenting points of contact between the boxers.

Roberts has composed the images on the horizontal panes so that the fragmentary figures skirt the edges of the works, framing the spaces between them. The point of contact between the protagonists is sometimes explicit, and sometimes elusive, like the images themselves which are variously shadowy or crisply defined. The effect is that of views glimpsed through a window, or between the heads in a crowd at the match, an effect exacerbated by the varying shapes of the quarter window panes.

These series of works are surprisingly poignant. The representation of contact between boxers evokes the curious paradox of the sport as a masculine endeavour where men can be locked in an embrace which is founded in orchestrated violence. In Roberts’ work the contact between the male protagonists is represented almost as an absence. The theatrical poses and movements which exemplify, and glamorize, the ‘art of boxing’ are not seen here, rather these masculine bodies suggest that their relationships with each other are fragmentary and clumsy. Yet there is genuine poetry in the arrested movements and truncated figures.

In these exhibitions the two artists have, quite independently, made work which together seems to represent the yin and yang of glass–transparency & opacity, colour and monochrome, feminine and masculine, sex and its opposite. Neither is uncomplicated, both are imaginative and playful excursions into gender and identity through everyday material culture.