Anderson, Nola, "Sophisticated work a sabotage of ironies", Canberra Times 12.10.84|
In ‘Knives and Shadows’ Neil Roberts has used a progression of objects to explore the qualities of “maleness and femaleness”, their existing demarcation and their potential coalition.
He explores this theme through a series of ironies of perception in which the shadow plays one role in a cast of dual identities. The knife image, with its implications of violent power, is central to the theme of duality and transformation.
This is not the first time Roberts has based his work on the knife object, although in previous work it was used to explore the fascination and fear of modern urban violence. The focus in this exhibition has shifted, but the image of suppressed force persists.
Five glass knives present five explorations of duality based on a transformation of the knife and its environment. In all cases the knife’s power is tempered by some device of distance or irony. No 3 knife is frozen within its own slab of glass, No 2 knife is rendered unusable by its barbed-wire bandle (sic), No 4 knife resorts to the fragility of the refined object. Despite this sabotage of ironies, they are all charmingly dangerous.
The knives are prefaced by 10 miniature graphics, the ‘Shadows’, and followed by a large construction of neon and wood. The progression is significant and I feel that, while the knives would continue to function as vigorous explorations by themselves, both the ‘Shadows’ and the construction depend on the environment for their livelihood.
Physically the progression of the exhibition is from two dimensions to object to spatial development. Whether or not this is intended as a metaphor for the growth of revelation (that might be a too neatly literal reading) the graphics do act as signposts rather than destinations. Their images provide an introduction to the idea of the androgynous figure, the silhouette that becomes a knife, the body that dissolves.
They exist within this exhibition as suggestions and, as such, by themselves do not carry forceful resolution of either medium or philosophy. That job is done by the total exhibition logic and, with most intensity, by the knives.
Beyond the knives the exhibition expands into the large three-dimensional construction of wood, neon and glass. The shadows, the linear harshness of neon and the anonymous face of burnt wood contribute additional visual metaphors of duality and transformation.
To be read in such specific philosophical detail, the exhibition does need the clues provided by the artist in his catalogue notes. Without these the work sensitively expresses its ironies without demanding specific reference be made to the theme of balanced androgyny, although the graphics do give some visual clues. There is also some effort needed to interpret the exhibition as a whole statement, since there is every temptation to be satisfied with the singular presence of the knives.
The broader view is a valid one, though, on this occasion, justified by the exhibition’s cohesion of imagery and intent. It is a sophisticated work that cases exhortation with fascination.