Neil Roberts

Proudfoot, Cassie,

"Shaping pre-loved works"

The Canberra Times, Review, 9 August 1996. pp. 12

Cassie Proudfoot

After coordinating the hugely successful National Sculpture Forum, what does a mid-career sculptor like Canberra’s Neil Roberts do next?

“I was lucky enough to spend six months just working in my studio,” Roberts says. “I received the ACT Creative Arts Fellowship for visual arts in 1995, so I have been just working on my art.”

Finding sustained periods just to make art is something most artists find very difficult. “That is why grants like this, where the end result is not dictated to the artist, are so vital,” Roberts says. “Artists have to live somehow, so most have part-time employment of some sort or another. So spending seven days a week making art is a real luxury...”

“Coordinating the Sculpture Forum was incredibly hectic. There were very long hours, I was heading in all sorts of directions, dealing with all sorts of people, and the necessary concentration span was about 10 seconds. So to come straight out of that and into the studio was quite strange.,.

“I found myself writing out long lists of tasks, and setting goals, which is quite inappropriate behaviour in a studio context, really. So it took a while to get going, to settle into a new rhythm, and to really take on a more contemplative way of being.”

The organisational skill Roberts developed during the Sculpture Forum may have come in handy during his time out in the studio, as he set himself a big task for his six-month fellowship.

“I made a conscious decision to try to make a breakthrough,” he says. “I wanted to get to a new plateau, as it were. The grant didn’t specify that an exhibition was essential, but I wanted to work towards that. My previous work has been more wall-based, so this exhibition (Tiny Idols Heaped in Piles), with its forms on poles, is quite a departure.

“There are more than 100 pedestal forms in the installation, so that was a quota of four a week, that I had to get hold of. So Revolve and I became very close during that time.”

The installation comprises familiar objects such as jugs, shoes and tyres, joined with various pole forms, mostly rather weather-beaten or pre-loved. The group is held together visually by the use of a very dull, blank green colour. The result is a timeless, architectural quality. The installation feels as if it grew by itself, as if it always existed. This comfortable, lived-in feel is something Roberts has been investigating through as study of still-life painting.

“Still life is often relegated as a lower art form, against massive historical paintings,” he says. “But centuries later we can all relate to the items in a still life, whereas many people find that the historical epics are meaningless…”

“However, the unpretentious everyday objects are probably registering in our DNA or something. I mean a bowl, a jug and some fruit. That is something people have always seen. We have seen these forms so often that we recognise them in an innate fashion.”

He is pleased with Tiny Idols, but is unsure which way his art will take him next. However, he has plenty of other things going on at the moment.

“I am on the short list for a sculpture for the Magistrates Court, so I have been dealing with structural engineers and budget requirements and so on,” he says.

“Also I am doing some work for the Canberra Contemporary Art Space’s next project, The Archive and the Everyday, involving artists working with the collections from our national institutions. And I recently got an honourable mention in a Japanese art prize, and for a very minor award I got more than award-winners often get in Australia. So with that, and the fellowship, I was able to rest easy for a while.

“I am very pleased with Tiny Idols, but I am still learning from it myself. I am still having new thoughts. Seeing other people with the work is teaching me things too. I had a number of intentions with the work, and I am sure one of them will lead me in a new direction.”