Rangoli: Art that Binds

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Oriel Davies Gallery
The Park, Newtown
Powys SY16 2NZ
Telephone: +44 (0) 1686 625041
Fax: +44 (0) 1686 623633
Email: desk@orieldavies.org


Monday-Friday 10am-5pm
Saturday 10am-5pm




The Process of Memory: New work by William Roberts

Exhibition: William Roberts
Date: April 2008
Writer: Antoinette McKane
Publication: William Roberts
Publisher: Oriel Davies Publications

A preoccupation with process and a fascination with memory seem to characterise the work of William Roberts. As a BA student at Manchester Metropolitan University, Roberts was always intrigued by the technical possibilities of paint, often abandoning a brush to experiment with other methods of application. He also explored the language and mechanics of printmaking - a process-driven discipline which provided alternative ideas and avenues for his continued experimental use of paint. After graduating in 1999, the artist spent several years working and travelling in Australia and New Zealand, documenting these trips with photographic snapshots. In 2004 Roberts returned to Cardiff, this time to undertake an MA at UWIC.

It was during his MA that Roberts started to develop a complex process executed on large wooden panels. Working with the support flat on the floor, the artist first laid down household emulsion, applied with a cake icing tool, along with collaged embossed wallpaper, creating images in shallow relief. He then covered this textured surface in successive layers of household emulsion in different colours. The final part of the process involved a time-consuming and exacting technique of sanding down the textured surface with an electric sander, to reveal once again the image and multiple layers of colour below. Roberts refers to these early paintings as ‘fairytale landscapes’. Although alluding to a diversity of idioms and sources, such as fabric design, modern graffiti, the urban landscape and computer games, the images that emerge appear ‘mythical’ - parables or legends passed down through generations, and coloured differently by each successive generation of storyteller. A sense of ‘ancient’, and ‘universal’ memory is alluded to through the use of repeated pattern, shapes, lines and symbols, reminiscent of ritualistic Aboriginal painting and Celtic stone carving. These aspects of picture-making held personal significance for a Welsh artist who had recently returned from Australia.

Seeking fresh imagery for a new body of work, Roberts began by using photographs from his travels. He also sourced group portraits found on the internet. These images, he claims, were significant not for their content, but for the voyeuristic viewpoint they offer the viewer - as an inquisitive tourist or net surfer. Most recently, Roberts was the recipient of a cache of family snapshots and now bases many of his compositions on these personal photographs, and in so doing, appears to be exploring a more personal aspect of ‘memory’. Again working with a support flat on the floor, he begins the process by placing a blown-up version of a photograph beneath a plate of glass, which he then traces in acrylic paint directly onto the glass. The painted glass is then pressed against a canvas and the glass removed, leaving the reversed image as a ‘monoprint’ on the support. This process forces the artist to work with a reverse view of the image – and positions Roberts literally on the other side of the painting to the viewer. The viewer remains outside the scene - a voyeur, perhaps, on the artist’s childhood.

Roberts’ elaborate process is taken several stages further in some instances. Sometimes he uses a thin, cellophane-like layer of plastic between the plate of glass and the painting. The film of plastic and paint can then be removed from the glass, placed on the surface of the canvas and wrapped around its edges. In other pieces Roberts will paint directly onto glass, but rather than transferring the image, the glass plate is allowed to stick to the canvas - the only adhesive in this case being the paint itself. Roberts is interested in how these techniques alter not only the object of the paintings, but also how they are perceived - a plastic film transforms a painting into a glossy new consumable, or a piece of glass mimics a computer screen. Like a scientist pressing a live specimen between slides in order to scrutinise it under a microscope, Roberts is fascinated by the way in which paint moves under glass. His experiments can reveal unexpected things: the dynamic spread of paint; the unusual pattern where two colours refuse to mix; or a glimpse of naked canvas. For Roberts though, the main significance of utilising plastic and glass in his process lies in their inherent ability to communicate the process by which the paintings were made. Roberts’ desire to demystify the process of artistic production is also evidenced in his descriptive titles, which detail the technique as well as materials used - for example ‘acrylic skin from glass on canvas’ rather than simply ‘acrylic on canvas’. These strategies, alongside the dictates of his processes, distance his practice from notions of artistic genius, and in this regard, Roberts acknowledges the influence of Italian painter Rudolf Stingel, who published a detailed booklet of instructions on how to produce an exact replica of the work he was exhibiting.

A further trait which Stingel and Roberts share is a commitment to pushing at the boundaries and definitions of painting, and in this new body of work, some of Roberts’ paintings have taken on an almost sculptural form. The artist has developed a technique using plasticine to create three- dimensional paintings. He uses his hands in a direct and playful way, impressing the plasticine (and image) deeply into itself. The thick slab of plasticine then serves as a mould into which acrylic paint is applied in layers. Once dry, the paint is pulled from the slab, resulting in the creation of a three- dimensional representation of the original plasticine image.The connotations suggested by the use of plasticine - to ‘childhood’, ‘play’, ‘home’ and the ‘domestic’ - are drawn out further in the imagery of these three-dimensional works - an ornate mirror frame, an imposing chest of drawers, some wooden banisters – the kind of items present in a child’s developing relationship with the world. Characteristically, Roberts has begun to push even this process further, by incorporating actual household objects into recent work. He might, for example, use a net curtain as a stencil for coloured pencil. Alongside these newly-developed processes, Roberts continues to use the sanding technique developed and perfected in his early ‘fairytale landscapes’. Paint now though, is used to create images from family snapshots, while the use of embossed wallpaper and household emulsion has begun to specifically refer to the ‘home’ and a memory of family life. Roberts’ use of colour appears to have calmed and shifted to some extent - perhaps suggesting the brown and orange tones of a sepia-tinted photograph. These new paintings are also smaller, reflecting their more intimate and domestic subject matter. The uniformity of canvas size throughout this new body of work brings to mind another of Roberts’ influences, Tomma Abts, who works on a consistently sized support of 48 x 38cm. In a nod to Abts, who takes her titles for paintings from a book of German baby names, Roberts has based the titles of his new work on the names of the graffiti and artists that feature in the first art book he owned, Spray-Can Art by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff. These tongue-in-cheek titles add an appropriate streak of teenage rebellion to the domestic themes of Roberts’ work.

Some of Roberts’ recent developments might indicate that his practice will ultimately result in the exhibition of physical objects themselves. Roberts, however, has remarked that using found objects would only be of interest if he could shroud them in coats of paint, as for him, the application and processes of painting and the theme of memory have become inextricably linked. For Roberts, paint is a medium which can signify both the selectivity and subjectivity of memory itself. Memory is never static, never documentary, but an ever-changing interpretation and re-evaluation of past events. Roberts’ constantly evolving practice and processes - pushing paint back behind glass, containing it in plastic, sanding it down - are perfect metaphors for the ways in which we push back, contain, re-live and polish memories.

Roberts’ practice is intensely personal, yet there is something very universal about a fascination with the domestic world of our childhood. If, as the old maxim says, ‘to know where we are going, we must know where we have come from’, then Roberts’ ability to tap into his past and re-imagine it so vividly makes his own future look very bright indeed.

Antoinette McKane received her BA (2006) and MA (2007) in art history from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. She writes on modern and contemporary art and gallery practice and is currently undertaking doctoral research at Tate Liverpool.