Gates, Merryn, "Collected Memories of Neil Roberts", Object, No. 40, 2002|
Since Neil Roberts' tragic and sudden death in March this year there have been many obituary notices. A common theme was that the qualities of the man were manifest in his art. Some months have passed, perhaps the sharp sting of loss has softened a little. Perhaps it is time to be reminded how good Neil's work is. To help me, I have enlisted the words of those who managed to do the hardest thing - write about the death of a friend. Because if the qualities of the man are the qualities of the work, then these works will enlighten, they will be loved.
As Neil and I prepared for a survey exhibition last year we started to think about titles. It was on the theme of recycling, but Neil resisted the term 'found abject', there was just something too accidental about that for him. He suggested the term 'collected'. As we proceeded, I became more aware of how particular his collecting was. It was an incredibly tender process. The assemblages were never simply a matter of accumulation. He performed what Anne Brennan called a 'rehabilitation' of the object, and by doing so, allowed us a way of reflecting on our own relationship with objects.
The Op Shop
His family and friends often received presents in the mail, almost always wrapped in the proverbial brown paper and tied with string. The gifts had very little material value but they always had enormous personal resonance for their recipient: postcards, badges, letters, photographs, lavender bags, perfume bottles, rolling pins, cake racks, a forgotten LP, a dusty keepsake from an Op Shop … Roberts was always thinking of others.
David Leser, Sydney Morning Herald, April 10, 2002, p34
Neil never lost his romantic engagement with the drama of glass blowing, and although his later work was to move away from the making of glass and into the realm of sculpture, installation and drawing, glass remained an important element in his work. He continued to use it in both his private practice and his public works, revelling in its paradoxical properties: its capacity to be both hard yet fragile, ductile yet solid, opaque yet translucent. Anne Brennan, Art Monthly Australia, May 2002, p34
The back shed
I think I now understand my father's preoccupation with anything old, rusty and useless. His garage is a museum, his own art gallery. Thanks for urging me to realise that. AR, from Visitor's Book, CSA Gallery, May 2001
In a very real way, his work has always been about masculinity, its culture, its rituals, its nonsense, and the fantastic possibilities of its transformation. Deborah Clark, artonview, winter, 2002, p27
Neil talked to me about a deserted concrete factory site, near his home in Queanbeyan. He walked there. He took photographs there that were darkly lyrical. And he picked up discarded, used gloves. So used some barely existed, weather adding to the disintegration only slightly. The manual task was so evident in the leather, the grip, the rub, the tear. He photographed them in negative so they floated, like clouds being too literal. Neil imagined a sequence, and a simple slide projector was installed - no need for more technology. To avoid the mechanical, there are blanks in the carousel. The gloves are animated by that rhythm. It is not only about the multiple, but the individual. Reflections on May 2001, MG.
Among the paraphernalia of sport, Neil looked for the residue of human effort. The mark of boot on the leather of footballs, sweaty footprints on a boxing training mat, the punching bag, the resin grip on a vaulting horse. His work always brought to my mind the phrase 'the punishing kiss' (from an Ute Lemper CD)- the strange mixture of violence and affection that passionate exertion involves. The smell of nuggett, the memory of Saturday mornings getting ready for game polishing the shoes, polishing the ball. The precision that is the reward of training, for the hours of throwing and bouncing. Neil paid attention. His work helps us do the same.
Merryn Gates is a freelance curator and arts writer. In May 2001 she curated a survey exhibition, The Collected Works of Neil Roberts at the CSA Gallery, the Australian National University, for metis 2001 - wasted, a biennial program of art and science.