Campbell, Barbara, Neil Roberts chances with glass, catalogue essay, Canberra Glassworks|
Soho in 1989, and more generally Manhattan, was not the gentrified over-priced tourist hub we know of today. This was still several years before Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” policy came into citywide effect: a policy which saw an aggressive, no-tolerance approach to graffiti, public drinking and other supposed signs of civil disorder. Intact windows and freshly painted walls are a reassuring sight for investors and tourists alike, so the criminological theory goes. From May to July 1989 Neil Roberts was staying in New York courtesy of the Australia Council’s Greene Street studio residency in Soho. And he was welcoming every chance meeting with the social and material incongruities that Manhattan could throw across his path.
On the evening of the Fourth of July holiday, Neil took a walk over to the nearby Lower East Side where the New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels club was enjoying its own “traditional street party” in the block that it owned. Writing about this and other arenas of masculinity for the Age Monthly Review (AMR) in 1990, Neil describes how the occasion “contained all the icons of a staunchly defended masculine sub-culture – Harley Davidsons lined the street, a band of dinosaurs played Steppenwolf covers and smashed vodka bottles from the back of a semi-trailer, thin women in minimal dress ran errands between groups of bikers, or paraded the foreground of the band’s arena.”1 As the night passed into morning—illegal fireworks exploding between cars and people, and rival groups of Chinese and Italian youths vying for street supremacy—Neil writes, “It was almost inevitable that actual violence would erupt”. He goes on to describe the beating and pulping of an outsider who had “transgressed some neighbourhood law”.
The final paragraph of Neil’s account brings with it an uneasy restoration of order. Returning to the neighbourhood the next day, after rain and city sweepers had cleared away the night’s debris, Neil watches as two policemen wearing rubber gloves evict “a bearded emaciated young man, filthy and utterly naked” from his burrow in the piles of black garbage bags. In another writer’s hands, it may have been a picaresque night of adventuring. But there’s no hero in this narrative. Instead, Neil’s account of barely suppressed, then erupting, then dissolving violence, is both exhilarating and sickening for us to read as it evidently was for him to witness.
It was neither the first nor last time Neil would be drawn to the knife edge of violence, and render it in exquisite detail; exquisite both in the sense of delicacy and intensity. He knew how to express this simultaneous power of and dis-ease with masculinity through words as we can see in his Fourth of July and related stories (covering: a barber shop in Toronto; the Grandview speedway, Pennsylvania; a bullfight in Barcelona and the homeless men of New York City’s streets) that constitute the arenas in the AMR essay title. And he knew how to articulate this same complex of masculinity through the medium of glass, as you see in this exhibition, Neil Roberts chances with glass.
Sometime in the late 1970s Neil saw someone (a man) blowing glass somewhere in Australia. I don’t remember any of the when-who-where details but I do know Neil was hooked and wanted some. He moved to Adelaide to train in glassblowing at Adelaide’s Jam Factory workshops from 1978 to 1980 and then spent six months in 1981 refining his technique in the snowy enclave of Sweden’s national glass school at Orrefors. When he returned to Australia he took up an artist-in-residency and tutoring opportunity at the still young Sydney College of the Arts before Klaus Moje seduced him down to work at the even younger glass workshop at Canberra School of Art in 1983. By then something had shifted in Neil. Although technically very competent, his practice of “working” glass in the hot shop had become one of working with glass. It was around 1982, perhaps while he was enrolled in the Neon summer school at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop, that Neil began exploring glass’s metaphoric capacity, including, most notably, its will (yes, will) to break.
Far from immediately discarding instances of breakage when they arose, Neil seemed to have an antenna for such moments, as though he could hear the medium speaking its needs. Not all such breakages were by his hand. I remember one particular day in late 1999 accompanying Neil to the Mugga Lane Recycling Depot in Canberra where he chanced upon a sheet of black glass that must have only just tipped over and smashed onto the gravelly dirt. Like a completed black jigsaw puzzle, it lay there, a perfect, though fragile, glossy rectangle. Neil carefully transferred the fractured form onto a solid board and stretchered it back to the studio in Queanbeyan. His antenna was surely also picking up the voices of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray that day, for that piece of pre-shattered black glass from the tip was like a gift to Neil.2 The fractured internal shapes were so inherently right and just that they were only in need of some suturing. He used copper-foiling for the internal joints and lead-lighting to secure the rectangular perimeter. Polished and framed, Bachelor’s Kiss was first shown at Gitte Weise Gallery, Sydney in March 2000 for Neil’s Dew Mixed with Sweat solo exhibition and again in June 2000 at Helen Maxwell Gallery, Canberra for his Half Ether show. It’s now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), posthumously acquired with funds from the Friends of Neil Roberts.
The titles of Neil’s two exhibitions in 2000 are a bifurcation of a line of text by the American artist, Raymond Pettibon. Neil renders the words “half ether, half dew mixed with sweat”3 with copper-foil and glass to form the footer (and title) of a larger lead-light glass structure with grape motifs drawn from designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass workshop. The glasswork forms a partly open carapace wrapping around a well-used boxers’ punching bag that Neil had uncovered at one of his favourite Fyshwick haunts. Neil found in Pettibon’s words a succinct corollary to the kind of masculine energy he’d been expressing through his own material vocabulary since the early 1980s. What both artists hit upon with their respective funky-sweet recipes—ether, dew and sweat; Tiffany studio and boxing gym; glass, copper, lead, leather and canvas—are elements that never quite mix together but rather, become locked together in some potentially volatile chemical reaction. Half Ether… was purchased by the NGA in 2002 just prior to Neil’s death.
Ramp (2001), included in this present exhibition, was Neil’s last major work using the lead-light technique. Half Ether…, Ramp and Agnes Northrop at the Gym (2000, collection Art Gallery of South Australia) form a trio of works combining leaded glass and used sporting equipment: a leather speedball in the case of Agnes Northrop…, a padded canvas vaulting horse in the case of Ramp. Ramp’s glass design is a slightly decentred slice from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed skylight in the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Ramp was made for the inaugural National Sculpture Prize at the NGA yet its wall-mounted verticality brings it into the realm of painting. In this position, he finds a “sweet spot”4 between the pressure of the floor inherent in the vaulting horse and the elevation of the ceiling referenced by the glass design. Far from looking up, out and away to the sky (or heaven), we are forced by the glass to look intently through to the sweat stains and roughened canvas brought about by long-departed bodies.
Physically and spatially, Ramp referees between two large series of works in Gallery One: the large leaded-glass panels resting against one wall and the constellation of softly rectangular glass panes attached to the opposing wall. Each series takes its cue from photographic representations of boxers found in cheap and arcane boxing “literature”. The titles of the four lead-light works (A Foul Pivot, Left Hand Blow for the Head, A Swinging Left Hand and Crossguard to the Left) are taken from the classic Science of Boxing by American middleweight champion Mike Donovan, first published in 1893. From each illustration of an “illegal” boxing manoeuvre, Neil has traced out the two combatants’ intersecting force fields and by so-doing has envisioned an energy between the original subjects that the still photographs never allowed. In these works, the so-called “negative space” between figures becomes positively charged by lead running through glass, discharging through the floor to the earth.
The space between boxers is more obviously read as such in The Ring series. The source imagery is again borrowed (for all his interest in boxing, Neil never attended a match), this time from cheaply printed boxing magazines. The poses are not staged for illustration as with the Donovan text of 1893. Fast lenses had well and truly advanced since then and could easily freeze the speed of a boxer’s jab to catch the figures off-balance and seemingly out of control. As the boxing imagery has come forward in this series, the materiality of glass has taken on a much more supportive role. Neil has all but obliterated the medium’s natural qualities of transparency and reflectivity. Only their thickness, slight curvature and overall shape remain to speak of the history of these specific pieces of glass. They are artefacts from second-hand car yards, from used cars, from the lives travelled in those cars and the landscapes framed for those lives. All of that history was covered over when Neil mixed up his special slurry of cement and BondCrete, carefully poured it onto each glass panel, sanded it back to a fine surface; took his cheap toner photocopies from cheaply produced magazines and transferred those body oddments onto the sanded surfaces using a turpentine release and the back of a wooden spoon. Despite this elaborate erasure, the glass continues to exert its influence over the artist, his method and his chosen imagery. Each pane’s pre-given shape dictates the amount and quality of space between the figures.
Although Neil was known as a sculptor he was never willing to conform to sculpture’s traditional demands. In this exhibition, for instance, few works stand completely away from the walls, although they seem to want to. Those that are free-standing are precariously so: Show (One Man’s Toil), (1989–93), In Advance of a Broken Heart (1988) and One Man’s Eyes (1988). In each of these works it is the glass element that seems to offer a life of elegance to its hard-worked partner (respectively a hoe, a shovel and a pick). Neil’s gift for bringing things into “a state of belonging”5, so evident in these works, also reminds us that in even the best partnerships, perfection is never permanent.
Over his more-than-twenty-year arts practice, Neil often took his chances with glass. He knew he wasn’t in control of every encounter and that the best results were achieved by simply being attentive and responsive. He once told me that he found the sinuous piece of barley-cane glass you see in Show (One Man’s Toil) lying on a blanket on a lower-Manhattan sidewalk, part of the merchandise of a homeless man’s gleanings. That piece of glass enabled Neil to make connections between New York street and Queanbeyan studio, between agricultural work and subsistence living, between air and ground. It still does all that work and connects us still to its collaborator, Neil Roberts.
1 Neil Roberts, “One Man’s Eyes: Arenas,” Age Monthly Review 9, no. 11 (1990), 6.
2 Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass), 1915–23 was famously broken in transit after its first showing in 1926 and then repaired by Duchamp. The cracks are clearly visible in both the top and bottom halves of the work. Man Ray’s 1920 photograph, Dust Breeding is a document of The Large Glass as it lay gathering dust for a year on the floor of Man Ray’s studio. Dust is one of the listed media of The Large Glass along with oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire on two glass panels.
3 Original Raymond Pettibon reference unknown. Pettibon (b. 1957) is well-known for his graphic interplay between words and images.
4 Neil Roberts and Elena Taylor, National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition catalogue (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2001), 80.
5 Things in the State of Belonging is the title of a 1993 work last shown with Show (One Man’s Toil) in Neil’s 2001 survey exhibition, The Collected Works of Neil Roberts at Canberra School of Art Gallery, curated by Merryn Gates.