Cousins, Kerry-Anne, "The collected works of Neil Roberts", Muse, June 2001|
Those who are acquainted with the work of Neil Roberts will recognise the gentle pun in the title of this exhibition. Roberts is, of course, a great collector. This ten year survey exhibition of Roberts’ work is part of the Science Week art and science exhibitions collectively called Metis 2001 – Wasted. Gordon Bull has written a gently humorous and insightful essay about Roberts’ work in the general catalogue that accompanies the Science Week exhibitions.
Roberts has worked very much in the public domain. His imaginative sculpture using a crop irrigation machine on the Nerang Pool in Commonwealth Park was one of the most successful Floriade sculptures, and his neon sculpture House Proud, that encircles the Playhouse adds a touch of magic to Civic Square. Roberts was recently commissioned to create a wall display case for the entrance to the Australian War Memorial exhibition halls. The commission also included the input of other people, but because of Roberts’ involvement I kept thinking of it in relationship to his other work. It helps explain, it seems, the difference between arranging objects within a museum display and what Roberts creates in this exhibition. At the War Memorial, objects such as a pair of boots, a slouch hat and identity tags are arranged within a glass grid. They have been removed from their original context and have no explanatory text, yet because they are in the War Memorial we are meant, I would suggest, to respond to the objects, in an emotive, not an aesthetic, way, within a war narrative. Their original function is what gives them meaning.
Roberts’ sculptures in this exhibition are a collection of discarded objects that have been denuded of their specific meaning and function. If they can be read as a particular object in a former life, this, it would see, is incidental. In Strosimomancy, 75 trowels are arranged in an undulating line along the wall. We can appreciate their formal qualities of rhythm and variations of form before we are drawn to examine their individual characteristics. On each of the trowels subtle changes have been made. Small pieces have been added to their surface–- a piece of bone, a peach stone, a dried flower that draws our attention to its shape, colour and texture.
The Great Ultimates is a work based on spherical objects that have been subtly reworked and arranged to form patterns of shape and texture. The objects, which are as diverse as pieces of machinery, drain covers and sieves, may have had a specific function once, but now they betray that function to undergo a sea change in which their formal qualities are signified. More direct intervention results in one of the most striking works, Wing and a Prayer, where Roberts has extended the rusted spokes of old umbrellas with thin glass rods to create large stick-like fantasy insects that collect beneath them a tracery of cast shadows.
While we may recognise the original function of these objects, Roberts transforms the familiar into something new. But his works are not didactic, in that they do not tell one story or sing with one voice, but are subject to as many interpretations as the people that view them. It is the change to our perceptions that makes this exhibition such a profound visual experience. This new perception makes us stop and revalue what has hitherto been unnoticed.
For those who know Roberts’ work this exhibition will be an additional pleasure, but for those who only know Roberts’ public persona this exhibition will be a revelation.