Neil Roberts

Campbell, Barbara,

Roomsheet Essay

Present Continuous, Other, Sydney: Sydney College of the Arts, 2023.

Barbara Campbell

Neil Roberts (1954–2002) began his training in glass at the Glassblowing Workshop at Adelaide’s Jam Factory in 1978 and honed his skills in 1981 at the Orrefors Glass School in Sweden. He returned to Sydney later that year, as an artist-in-residence and part-time tutor in the glass department at Sydney College of the Arts under Maureen Cahill. In July 1982 he participated in the Neon Summer School at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop, and it was perhaps the combination of neon’s cultural associations and the energy of New York itself that pushed Roberts to work with glass as a metaphoric vehicle. Glass was one medium amongst many in Roberts’ 20-year practice, but one particularly suited to themes of nascent violence and vulnerability that recur in his work.

In 1983, when Roberts moved to Canberra to help Klaus Moje set up the glass workshop at Canberra School of Art, his contribution to the staff exhibition that year was the Third Rail series. The title refers to the method of providing electrical power to the New York subway. The sense of inherent danger carries through to the work itself: a collection of knives with glass blades. One of these knives from 1983, made simply, brutally, expediently, from 12mm thick glass, is the earliest work included in Present Continuous.

The latest work by Roberts in the exhibition (and hanging near the glass knife) is a posthumous collaboration from 2017. The Space Inside My Fist, was cast in lead crystal in an edition of 20 by Luna Ryan as a special commission to accompany the exhibition Neil Roberts chances with glass at the Canberra Glassworks gallery that year. The terracotta original from which Ryan made the mould had had several material lives since it was initially formed inside Roberts’ fist in 1995. Roberts first cast the object in bronze (probably from a wax original) in an edition of six, and exhibited them in pairs, each resting on a green canvas pillow filled with rice. As a terracotta form, Roberts made about 100 other originals and showed them piled together on an old, worn, creamy, canvas pillow in 1996 for an exhibition in Goulburn. Each form invites an uneasy intimacy, either real or projected. The viewer or, ideally, the holder can wrap their own hand around the work in imitation of that original gesture of fist clenching. The medium (be it terracotta, bronze, or lead crystal) is also the medium (conduit) between (per)former and (be)holder.

Flows of energy are immanent in all the major works by Roberts in Present Continuous: he looked for such flows everywhere. They run between materials such as the oxidised metal tines and borosilicate glass tubing in Wing and a Prayer, 1988 (assembled here for the first time since 2001). They are made visible through the intersecting lines in the three lead-light works of 1999-2000 (Left Hand Blow for the Head, A Swinging Left Hand and Crossguard to the Left), each one illustrating an “illegal” boxing manoeuvre but with original combatants made invisible except for their lead boots. Energy flows are layered in Ramp, 2001 where the round glass “sweet spot” of the leaded-glass carapace hovers over the spent canvas of its vaulting horse support. And it flows as electrically excited neon gas in a glass tube threaded through stilled ping-pong balls in Still Life (with Finches), 1996/97.

The ‘present’ in Present Continuous refers to a state of being present to the demands of the medium at the moment of making a work. The ‘continuous’ is the way in which that original state carries forward in time through the object itself. In Roberts’ case one might call this his ‘legacy’.

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