Neil Roberts

Logan, Jim,

"If anything survives us, it will probably be something else..."

Art Monthly Australia, Review, # 72, August 1994. pp. 29 – 30

Jim Logan

Neil Roberts creates poetic statements about time, memory and history.

Kunst is a small commercial gallery, just two domestic-sized rooms, which one ascends to by means of a steep flight of stairs. The fine craftsmanship of this wood and brass staircase transforms what would normally be a commonplace experience into something magical. So it forms a perfect approach to the imaginative world of Neil Roberts, a profoundly romantic and gentle Canberra artist.

In fact, Roberts’ works start in the stairwell and swell to encompass the two main spaces They are a melange of objects and materials, subtly altered and joined together so as to transcend the banality of their former existences.

All manner of natural and fabricated materials may be found in this show: old cork, sticks, rubber tyres, steel panels, pizza trays, rope quoits, bits of tin, fragments of lace, paper, wood, stone, plastic and glass. And all are alchemically transformed with the trusty hot glue gun. Roberts disavows the time ‘found objects’ because it tends to distract attention from whatever associations we might make with things and to impose a more formal reading. Instead, he wants to imbue objects with poetic, human associations and to invite viewers to share in their recreation.

What Survives Us (1992), for example, which is constructed from a Victorian forged hacksaw and a discarded drawing, demonstrates the orchestration of romantic associations between disparate objects which characterises this artist’s approach. It was originally titled 1800 Mr Braid and Cuvier of found Science and Comparative Anatomy, when shown in the 1992 exhibition 3D at 200 Gertrude Street. Mr Braid was a friend and neighbour to the Roberts family in suburban Melbourne for 35 years who, when he died, left Neil some tools and other bits and pieces from his workshop. They have been used to evoke poetic thoughts about time, memory and history as well as more immediate responses to their very potent physicality.

This, and one of the most popular pieces, The Great Ultimates 1993/94, make artful use of geometric simplicity. For, while Roberts strives to elicit complex responses to his collected materials, he also revels in the simple pleasures they can bring. ‘The circles and rings I collect and combine’, he says, ‘carry another intention – the possibility of what I call belonging in an isolated, dislocated world. Fit is something I trust equally with intellect. I will rarely (but not never) radically intervene to facilitate connections’.

The objects in The Great Ultimates form an arc across three walls of a room, a mesmerising constellation of circles and rings. At first glance the objects resonate against the white walls purely as geometry, spinning dervishes in a modernist nightmare. But then the physicality of surfaces becomes apparent – old grease on the pizza pans, beautiful rust patterns on the iron, frayed ends of the ropes – turning the whole into a joyous celebration of colour and surface.

To some, this might come across as just hippy wish-fulfilments with no cutting edge. Others will understand it as the revelation of the internal world of a sensitive artist and humanist. Nevertheless, since this is Neil Roberts’ first exhibition in a commercial space and his first in Sydney, he may well have softened his approach. If so, it well suits the two small, intimate rooms and Kunst.

The narrative which Roberts weaves around his accumulations reflect his interest in literature. In fact a number of Roberts’ works have literary antecedents. The Plait, the Tatt and Baudelaire’s Rope, 1992 is a fine example.

‘Only the best art,’ writes Michael Ondaatje, ‘can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and the order it will become.

But, while only the culture that created an object can determine what that object’s meaning and purpose is, unintentional readings come unbidden when new myths and histories are brought into play. Roberts enjoys the way the melding of different cultures (particularly the so-called meeting of East and West) can bring this process about. Nevertheless, at some point the possible readings that we bring to things are apt to become too divergent. The flipside of romance, after all, is sentiment.

Last year, during a forum in Adelaide, Roberts quoted from Julian Barnes’ The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters:

‘Is love what will survive us? It would be nice to think so. It would be comforting if love were an energy source which continued to glow after our deaths. Early television sets, when you turned them off, used to leave a blob of light in the middle of the screen, which slowly diminished from the size of a florin to an expiring speck. As a boy I would watch this process each evening, vaguely wanting to hold it back, (and seeing ti with adolescent melancholy, as the pin point of human existence fading inexorably into a black universe). Is love meant to glow on like this for a while after the set has been turned off? When the survivor of a loving couple dies, love dies too. If anything survives of us it will probably be something else’. Then Roberts recalled Barnes story of a man who is remembered not because of his passions, his love or his bonds, but because, in 1830, he was the first person to be killed by a steam train.

So The Plait, the Tatt and Baudelaire’s Rope is about changes such as this in perceptions of an object’s status and significance. And, in an important sense, almost all the objects in these assemblages have undergone what Roberts himself refers to as a ‘liberation’: a kind of intellectual and physical recycling. He notes ‘the licence I took to free-associate within a given framework of ideas and intentions’. He invites us, too, to make free associations so that new conferred meanings will arise from the fluid motion of differing ideas and histories. ‘These associations’, he adds, ‘were meant to imply some sense of communication between disparate objects and a sort of fake authority or purposefulness that seems externally applied and that doesn’t quite mesh’.

But for this to work, of course, we must be generous and willing to use our imagination. Like Fiona Hall, Roberts is an artist whose formal delivery and technical accomplishment are matched by the conceptual resolution of the work and great strength of ideas.

Neil Roberts exhibition was at Kunst, Sydney, from June 12 to July 9.