Neil Roberts

Horwitz, Tess,

Light Touch, Hard Blow, catalogue essay, Queanbeyan: Galerie Constantinople, 2002.

Tess Horwitz

1985; Crafts Council Gallery; Sydney. A year before I got to know you.

Downstairs from a flurry of well-designed, colourful, desirable objects was a basement room, empty except for a number of long white neon tubes. That's my memory of it - a dark stone-walled room and stark tubes of glowing light. I was stopped still. I forgot judgement and aesthetics. I was just there, in that space, with that light. The work lodged in me, and the name of the artist was engraved. So when I met you I already knew something of you and your purpose in life.

Neil Roberts' purpose focused itself more and more, like a trajectory, until he was beyond artifice, honed in, tuned in to the wonder and sadness and knowing and mystery in those experiences averse to analysis. Our material culture stammers, becomes inarticulate when confronted with the immeasurable. Neil was fascinated with the energies that inhabit objects, with space, and moments of significance. Increasingly, as his awareness sharpened, the work seemed to be about the vibrations in air itself.

For me, your last works - the lighted football bladders, imprints of a bouncing ball, leadlight energy fields, and transparencies of used workers' gloves - produce a visceral, inaudible, indecipherable response. Out of register and out of frame; a fusion and an authenticity. The surge of emotion that travels upwards as I look at them could be interpreted as joy or as sadness; but it is less trite, more complex, wound around itself like a Celtic knot.

Neil's lecture "Rewiring the plait, the tatt and Baudelaire's rope"* attempted to articulate the ineffable qualities that he passionately pursued in his art practice. He spoke of objects that were in themselves quintessentially alive and full of emotional significance; of bonds and unions that manifest when a circuit is set up between two things or people; of the fetishistic quality of objects ascribed reverence and potency way beyond any original function. He spoke of energy transactions between objects and transmissions of meaning between objects and ourselves.

One horse is cast aluminium, brought back by you as a present from the Philippines. The other is cast bronze. You had not seen the bronze one when you gave me the other. The two horses are the same design, though the silver one is cruder, simpler through multiple rough re-castings. I always thought it strange that you gave me an object that echoed one I already owned and cherished. The two together have been a mysterious and material sign of our friendship.

For all his deliberation in the execution of his work, Neil had a childish glee and mischief in treasure hunting for the everyday used objects that inhabited his world. There was a joie-de-vivre, devil-may-care aspect to the man. His latest absurd and sweetly conceptual coup was the book of roneos that he organised to be bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Of course roneos fade to invisibility once exposed to light.

There is a stern clarity and gentle beauty in all that you achieved - an elegant home and studio, a gracious garden, collections that celebrate the richness of everyday objects, art that makes visible the unseen. You generated an environment and a community.

Neil often collaborated with other performers and artists. Collaborations with Neil could be quirky events. One was a colour food week where he and I strictly made and ate only food of one particular colour each day for one week. On the red day we were too busy to cook, so went down to the local and had bloody marys. But every other day we had dinner parties and guests came attired in correct colour, and the factory was decked appropriately. On the white day the table had a pure sheet of white paper rolled down it, with white crockery and white food. The only light was a white neon "yes" at the head of the table and then the moon outside.

You may not remember that morning in the factory when you and Boris were strumming your guitars and I was taking photos of you. In those photos I was deliberately cropping you both almost out of the picture frame and focusing the image on the space between. There is one photo of you alone, strumming and clearly tapping your foot in time, silhouetted and outlined by light, your face almost obliterated by the light flooding through the glass. It was such a limpid morning: laid back, no schedules, timeless. As I stare at the photo I can see again all that seeping whiteness - the whitewashed walls, the white carpet, the white white light. The spaces between us all, and the charge in the air.

Tess Horwitz

Canberra, November 2002

* Published in Art Monthly Australia, No. 43, Sept 2001, pp 5-9.

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