I first came in contact with Margaret Roberts' work through seeing a picture of it. The artwork in question was part of an exhibition called Histories held in 1987, and it was entitled Medusa's Dressing-table. It consisted of nothing more than a giant comb made of fibreglass, with black cast-iron shapes like tangled strands of hair, and beside it a dressing 'mirror' consisting of a large framed surface of wax and red wash resembling flesh, all on the same scale. I am wont to read an artwork like a text, and this one gave a hilarious version of the story of the mythical female monster we are familiar with in Freud's writings about men's representations of female genitals. This Woman was not even there, clearly no longer knowing her proper place, leaving representations of femininity to those who need them, and in her absence she seemed to loom immensely large and powerful, judging from the size of the attributes for her dressing-up. I was immediately attracted to this art because of the strange oversize of it. It gave the impression that one could best view it while lying on the floor and imagining one had one's nose close to this 'dressing-table'. I also could not help but take a distinct liking to the concept of absenting this powerful woman, who was out 'cruising' as I called it. It somehow spelled out what feminism in art could mean: an absenting of the subject constructed by male phantasies, and a distinct dislike of constructing any alternative feminine images so as not to get caught in the boring mire of trying to represent Woman again. I think this work was an indication of things to come in Margaret Roberts' art. First of all we were not going to see any more art 'about woman' not even an expressly feminist one, because that would have meant returning to the dressing-table. Like the absent Medusa, it was goodbye to all that, and enough to know we are women. It is interesting to note that all the aspects that characterise her work over the years were already present, though still figurative and narrative. The humour, the close-to-the-ground perceptions, the working with a scale which dwarfs the surroundings, and a process of finding in the everyday life of our given reality the raw materials to abstract/subtract a new way of perceiving by jolting our common-sense experience.
The eye starts to be drawn to the details of how we see. And up close and direct is where Roberts argues we experience life without the impediments of theory or analysis. At the same time her art can emphasise the strange abstraction of this process of close-up seeing.
Via plaster cubes of the imprints made by parts of her body to investigate the abstract planes producing its form, to polyhedron plaster objects which fill the spaces formed by repeatedly forcing two different shapes to hold together ('negative space'), we end up with the artist retreating from free-standing work to the very walls, floors and ceilings that make up the given space.
I find this transfer from the figurative to the space itself and to life in all its geometric potential unsurprising. It was as if the objects started to burst at the seams. They began operating in given spaces as distinct enigmatic 'objets d' art', in itself no problem given their serene beauty and stillness of form. But it is evident that, for Roberts, the spaces she was assigned had to be subdued and incorporated in her statements about the necessary embeddedness of art in the perceptual planes of vision. To be effective, the work had literally to take possession of the environment, and that meant transcending the limitations of pre-produced objects placed in a space.
So to demonstrate that the very planes of our perception contain the possibility of experiencing everyday reality abstractly as art, if only we're prepared to get up close as it were, Roberts draws in lines and colours directly on walls, floors, and ceilings. In this way she adds to or alters our perception of familiar surroundings (a room, a warehouse, a studio, a disused building), sometimes bringing in elements that enhance the effect of this 'otherness' of what we perceive to be there.
This usually means altering a designated space with a minimum of gestures, which does not mean they result from minimal work (her work is very labour intensive). Nor does it mean these gestures are small. More often than not they are sweeping and inhabit the whole space even transgressing into adjacent spaces. It can involve playing with the 3-dimensional expectations our minds deduce from the visual data our eyes give us, and deconstructing them as combinations of the 2-dimensional planes which we know are there, but which we have forgotten play a part in the experience of reality. It is like seeing a cube and thinking about the flat planes that hold its volume. This process can be reversed by constructing a cube from flat planes, as we shall see. Or it can mean mapping unseen planes onto the environment we are standing in. Or it can involve drawing the outside on the inside, showing that what is perceived as distinct and concrete is the effect of a relation to what is outside it.
All of these processes work by altering our focus, undoing our visual expectations, recognising the multiplicity involved in our compositions of reality, in order to make it possible to conceive of the ambiguity of perception. Normally we learn to concentrate on what is there as if that is all there is, while we unlearn seeing what is there as the consequence of what is not there. In other words, we loose the connectedness of things, ourselves included, because we objectify from a point of individuation, and the result is nothing but discrete entities. In Roberts' artworks, I find I am forced to admit that there are no easy answers to how I see and where I am, because she can make it/me switch from close to far, from flat to deep, which results in the experience of more than one way of seeing and being.
To use the terms of deconstruction, the art-effect of her work is to make us aware how the trace of 'absence' is found in 'presence' and how something 'other' is in the 'same'. This leads to an understanding of how apparently distinct things (a wall, a floor, a ceiling) bear their being 'other' within them. Or how I have to give up standing and observing and might have to lie down (to see the point of the dressing-table for instance). In a very direct sense, Roberts' art practice is an example of deconstruction at work in art. The artist would probably argue that you do not need to call this deconstruction, or any other name. And she may be right.
The normal way of viewing art is to contemplate it from a distance. We are here and there is the work. This is impossible with Roberts' art, because the dimensions of what she produces are such that we are forced to come up close. In fact, we are usually in the midst of the artwork, because it contains the space we are in. In a First Draft West exhibition we were literally standing in/on the red ochre floorspace which crept up the wall in a half circle spanning the room. Laying our trace by taking our red footprints with us down the stairs we found, on entering the room right under this space, the other half of the red circle reaching down from the ceiling on the same wall. The effect was exhilarating: we had been given the opportunity to do nothing else but think away a part of the floor and there it was! I find this one of the most enticing things about the artwork of Margaret Roberts, this playing with a flowering of possibilities in the very reality we are standing in. The world is simply not the same in her company!
Roberts likens the effect of her art practice to the work of Gertrude Stein. This is indeed a very useful connection to understand her project; we feel pushed up "against the plane of experience" in her art. This sort of embeddedness of experience in Stein Roberts calls an archetypal feminine process of merging, which never learned distance and separate subjectivity. At the same time she maintains that Stein is quite aware of her own position in history and in that sense is archetypal male. So her writing can demonstrate, as Roberts says, how the world looks to those embedded in it, because she is there and is also conscious of this 'being there'. I think that both of these aspects are uncannily true for Roberts, with very interesting results in the art she makes. She forces us to stay with what is there, and not to seek to separate out or distance ourselves from what we can experience directly. And she maintains that this is best achieved by flattening our perceptions, though at other times this can mean that what is flat has to be re-viewed as deep to get the full connection between the processes she engenders. But even then we can only get the point by bringing that perceived depth up close. Being in it, as it were.
For example, just by drawing a diagonal line underneath one of the arches of a railway viaduct and colouring each side differently, she alters our experience of the arch. It can offer us the abstraction of a vaulted ceiling, such as we can find in gothic cathedrals, as well as the possibility of seeing the same arch in two different colours, depending on which side we view it from. In other words, that arch holds an ambiguity of vision, which can be brought to life again by seeing its different possible planes. It can provide us in its day-to-day reality with a fortuitous occurrence of heavy rain resulting in a pool reflecting the sky, producing a perfect connection between heaven and earth which a cathedral purports to offer us too. Suddenly, with our nose close, we have an artwork out of something we might have passed dozens of times.
This is a relatively simple example of the games Roberts plays with the experience of our everyday environment.
Other works may involve much more complex procedures to jolt our awareness of art in life, by bringing to the foreground what was embedded in reality already. But all of her art plays with possibilities which are as it were retrieved from a state of absence of vision (or imagination) in us, because our normal rationalised vision does not (or does no longer) experience this other aspect of 'seeing', visualising our shared environment.
She might express her 'plane thinking' with some chalk lines intersecting on a concrete floor, which suddenly make us aware that embedded in the flat floor are the possibility of other non-flat, 3-dimensional, forms. We might try to make this procedure our own by describing these additions to the floor as recognisable things (a cube, a small table, a clothes drying rack). Whatever they become, the issue is that several planes come to life as a property of the seemingly simple flat plane of the floor. All we need to do is adjust our perception and conceive of the difference in planes the floor yields as an artwork. The use of chalk contributes to the process of lifting the drawing from the floor, though at the same time its scratchy lines work against firmly anchoring the image. And at the very moment we get it, just as we see the cube or thing on its own in its pure 3-dimensionality, we are drawn to the stains or the scratches, the pattern of the concrete, or (elsewhere) the lines of floorboards dissecting the newly created planes, and we are thrown back to a puzzling process of contradictory perceptions. So we cannot ignore the intrusions of life and the environment in this contemplation of art, because they are an integral part of it for the artist.
In another environment she has chosen a dirty white cluttered wall in an old foundry where we would hardly have noticed a disused window and door. But we become aware of their possibilities as art when she blocks them with plaster rectangles with big plaster handles. The virtuality of this process involves a giving up of our desire to distance our perception. The plaster blocks look like drawers, or plasterer's trowels, which has the effect of altering the dimensions of the wall. We can imagine the 'trowels' as normal size, which seems to require that we reduce the wall to a tenth of its size, and we can't help but chuckle at the sense of humour of the artist. At the same time we cannot avoid knowing the real size of the wall when we stand in the space, or when we note the other elements of it (the waterpipe, the wiring), so that we are again held in a sort of ambiguity or deferral of what the real is here. In fact, we do not have to choose for either image, they belong together and constitute the artwork.
A particularly successful example of this process of changing dimensions by bringing together what is there with what is not yet seen as a possibility of our perception, is Roberts' contribution to the feminist 'Dissonance' exhibition Discrete Entity . Here the given environment, a large exhibition space shared by five women artists, acquired a minimal, but imposing, Roberts addition. Two parallel airconditioning ducts running along the length of the ceiling were brought together on the floor by the addition of more ducting forming a large V. The effect is immense. Suddenly we are aware of the overhead ducts in a different way, of the proximity of the ceiling, of the distant and yet close-up formation of the V, and the way in which the V holds the other artworks under its wings, and even the symbolism of the letter V. V is for victory, at least for someone like me, old enough to remember the Second World War. Roberts no doubt saw the possibility for art in the life of the space as a relatively simple intervention in the architectonics of the place, but the unconscious process brings about an added pleasure of a politically defiant gesture.
The artist's interventions never obliterate our capacity to experience what was/is there. Instead they add an otherness to it in the most direct sense. Elsewhere I have called this a 'making strange' (a term from Eco, who sees this as the function of real art), but this may not be an adequate description of Roberts' art process. We are invited to deepen our experiences of our environment by paradoxically flattening our vision of it. This requires bringing up close what we see, imagining being in the work. This is not an alienating experience if one is prepared to give up the safe distance of 'objective' observation. It may indeed abstract from the familiar contexts which have alienated us from direct experience, but it can offer us instead a sense of going back to a more childlike experience of the world as continuous. The abstract form drawn close can almost give a feeling of being enveloped by it, particularly if the work has the deep red colour, which often characterises Roberts' artworks. In this way we can re-discover how the lines between life and art can be blurred by the lines Roberts draws.
I know of no better example than one of my favourite Roberts artworks, which I have dubbed 'Freud's corner'. (It always reminds me of the psychological experience I get from Eva Hesse's 'Hang Up'). A corner of the artist's studio gives up an amazing image. Across the room we perceive a dark red entrance, framed in white plaster as if it is a picture, which draws us in as if beckoning us to come closer and enter this uncanny yet familiar space. It seems to speak of 'absence' as the origin or other of 'presence', jolting us back to confront our childhood wish to crawl back in that soft, warm, glowing recess of oceanic bliss. Though we know there is nothing there but a 3-dimensional stark empty corner of the studio, this room has been neatly transformed into an intense space dripping with baroque sensuality and corporeal proximity. This comes close to representing the sublime for me.
In a completely different way the same studio corner plays with the idea of virtual reality in the image of two intersecting colour planes, though there is no unattainable cyberspace necessary for this process. We can actually physically enter this place and step through the planes, approach the window and perhaps examine the coloured skirting, walls and floor, but the 'real' effect is seen from a point just in front of these planes. The flattening of perspective creates a logically incongruous situation which is not easy to hold on to, because we know (and see) that the window and the corners of the room are there, and that everything is only painted on these flat planes. In the photographic reproduction we no longer see/experience the process of painting on floor, walls, and window so directly, because the camera does not wander in the space and its single focus frames the image. This makes of the artwork more of an op-art painting of large coloured planes which seem to fill the whole room. Only by being there can we establish that it is not a piece of trickery, or an op-art illusion entirely painted on a flat surface for the purpose of the camera, but a real work of art bringing together two aspects of the same room by using our visual potential to integrate 2-dimensional planes in 3-dimensional space.
When I first was confronted with Margaret Robert's drawing on walls and floors, I thought the effect she was aiming for was a sort of architectual or geometrical trompe l'oeil. But trompe l'oeil is characterised by make believe. The blank walls outside the Musee Pompidou painted as if containing windows and balconies, or the murals painted on interior walls with vistas of gardens and fountains from fake windows, come to mind as banal examples. This is make-believe to pacify the viewer's anxiety about blank walls and confined spaces. Roberts' art, however, is not about make-believe. In fact it is exactly the opposite. Instead of grasping at the fake to subdue our anxiety about what we seem to have lost and which plays on an 'as if', it insists that everything is real and there, 'if and when' the artist decides to re-organise our perceptions by drawing forward what is embedded in the direct field of our vision. This can be an amazing experience of wonderment, the naivety of which we may have lost in the process of becoming sophisticated interpreters of our reality. We are given back, as it were, the inherent ambiguities of reality as a complex web of many realities as long we have eyes to see.
It can also be an unsettling experience, since our normal points of orientation appear to come unhinged, not least because the artist insists on working with the raw reality of a given space. The projects are never executed by first clearing the space of its lived detritus, or by constructing the work so as to avoid the intrusions of elements that make up the space. That would destroy the immediacy and ambiguity of the given environment, and undo the aim of the process of making art necessarily embedded in life and hence would trivialise the work. It would also undermine the chance intervention of what is already there into the new thing that is constructed via/before our eyes.
I have already mentioned the chalk drawings, but an even more successful example of this messiness in Roberts' art is the Coloured Cube. This is an oxide drawing with a plaster capital, constituted on the artist's studio floor. The ambiguity of the work's perspective, of being there/not there, succeeds here because of the immediacy of the given, stained floor. One could imagine the sterility that would result from a pristine cleaning of the area bounded by the oxide. This would perhaps give us a clearer impression of the column, but at the expense of loosing the ground, which gives rise to it (to coin a pun).
This, I think, is the difference between Roberts' art and that of such Fathers of minimalism and conceptualism as LeWitt, whom she invokes in her writing. Her art lacks the sterility born of an anxiety about losing control which demands a rigorous clearing of the slate, even, or maybe particularly, avoiding the mark of the artist's subjectivity in order to erase literally the imprint of life as it is lived. Ironically, the effect of such a policy is that, for all his insistence on the absence of the artist in the work and on a purely mechanistic artprocess, 'he' is very much present in this universalising demand for a work without a trace, a disembodied (God-given?) artwork.
There does not seem to be this concern for a work without an author or trace in Roberts' case. Even though she is rigorous and disciplined in realising the concepts or ideas she chooses to present, the very point of her practice is to let herself be inspired by what is already there and then quite deliberately to intervene by creating an inmixing of otherness. For Roberts, art is made in life as it is lived, and that means that what is found to be there remains crucial to the experience of what she adds, which is in a sense nothing more than another viewpoint. Such chance events as smudges, stains, finger and footprints left in the work, newspapers, masking tape, rough floors and walls, incursions into the line of vision such as doors, windows, fire-extinguishers, walls and ceilings, the world outside and her (and our) own presence, all form part of the necessary physical parameters which produce the work of art as an experience of seeing differently, or of seeing something other in what is there. All these facts of life result in unplanned, but integral and welcome, aspects of the art process. This means also that each site gives rise to different choices.
For example, in Flats , a work in a disused shopfront on a busy street in Erskineville, the green and gold colours chosen for the painted floor sections contrast with the red of a fire-extinguisher on an inner wall. Moreover, the green and gold 'flats', which are segments of the walls 'reproduced' by being brought forward and laid flat on the floor, are moved slightly to the right from their actual vertical position. This results in patterns that do not line up with the verticals they are the shadow of, and the gap left on the far right was thus filled by the excess from the far left.
I saw this work through the shopfront window, very much like the camera captured it, with cars moving behind me. A funny thing happened in that this image reminded me of the big maps of yellow and green coloured blocks on mats representing roads and verges used to teach traffic rules in my children's pre-school in Denmark. They walk and tricycle along these areas to learn where to stop, indicate their turns, and watch oncoming traffic and stopsigns. The red of the fire-extinguisher was like a traffic light, while the car mirrored in the glass made me feel like one of those Danish children. This example demonstrates how we constitute the artwork anew in the personal way we view it, which may well include aspects that concerned the artist too.
In this context I want to say something about the monumentality of some of Roberts' indoor pieces. They dominate the field of vision entirely and interact with the physical presence of the viewer. A good example of this is the work of what, in a photograph, appears to be simply a big red square. The size of the space clearly lent itself to an interesting experiment with perspective. We find that the dimensions of the red square are so precisely related to those of the space that when we move to the other end of the warehouse we come to see in the distance the square as the widest (pointed) base of a narrowing red band running in a point towards us, like an unattached infinite tail (a concept Liz Ashburn used to describe it), or an enormous exclamation mark without its point, which is provided by the presence of the viewer. This is such an amazing discovery of something which is simply an effect of perspective, that we can hardly believe it is true. Obviously the size of this artwork contributes to the result.
One is also reminded of the effect of some of the other indoor works such as the V already mentioned, or the large blue and red cube jutting out from the wall in a warehouse in the Steam project,
or the re-production in deep red of an absent space behind a wall, which seems to float on the walls of a corridor continuing along another room wall in Unavailable Space. This bold scale contributes to the 'in your face' effect on the viewer (and it brings back to mind the effect of Gertrude Stein's writings on a reader). It is as if Roberts, like Stein, is quite oblivious to her 'proper' place as a woman. It reminds me of the hilarious photograph of the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer (in Parker & Pollock's Old Mistresses; Art and Ideology), standing as a minute figure on a ladder while she calmly puts the finishing touch to an oversize statue of a senator. It is this audacity to go beyond the borders of propriety which attracts me to Margaret Roberts' art. The messiness and the desire to work with the nose to the ground and demand that we get down there with her, is an intergral part of this approach. In the project Drawing on Rooms, Roberts works on similar but also other effects.
The mapping of the floorplan of the whole gallery from a point in one room resulted in an expanse of red ochre over the floor, fireplace and walls of this room extending, via a corner of the corridor, into the next room, where the red room itself was mapped out in yellow on the adjoining wall.
The viewer could recreate the sensual experience of mapping the whole first level of the building from a precise point in the room by following the red drawing while flattening the walls in the mind's eye. An important aspect of Roberts' art, demonstrated elegantly in Drawing on Rooms, is the aesthetic experience of the work. What was produced according to a rigorous plan of perspectival reproduction of connected spaces, becomes an intimate abstract artwork when we come up close and let it envelop us. The abstract yellow form on the wall, which has such a precise history of development, becomes a thing in itself (allowing the viewers their own associations), and interacts with the red sections peeping around the corner on the opposite wall. This, the artist would say, is the unexpected result of the art process. The seemingly meaningless process has the potential to yield meaningful experiences, because it works with the corporeal presence of the viewer in the work, which she regards as essential to make the art discernible in its ambiguity. The vantage point from which a particular artwork is conceptualised can sometimes be difficult to achieve, because Roberts is tall and her viewpoint is thus often several centimeters too high for some viewers to get the exact idea of what she had in mind. But because we are there we can choose other points of view, and more importantly see the drawings in their own abstraction. This can lead to an aspect of her art she very much welcomes, namely that without knowing the history of the project (why and how it came about), the viewer can discover the independent character of the work itself.
Thus, in a part of the PURL project the reproduction of the lower floorplan in white oxide on the carpet of a disused schoolroom on the first floor, produces an abstract white glowing form half running up the wall, and enhanced by daylight streaming in from the many windows. We do not need to know that this abstract flat sculpture is the result of precise calculations to map the lower floor from a precise vantage point in the room. This situation introduces the double pleasure of Roberts' art. The abstract coloured forms crossing the 'normal' boundaries of walls, floors, ceilings, corridors, doors, windows, all of which actually anchor our common sense of perspective, can offer in themselves intensely satisfying aesthetic experiences.
A deep green form painted on the planes of a corner in the PURL project, turns out to be the exact replica of a wall on the other side of this corner of the building, which seems to bring us back to earlier work by Roberts with polyhedrons (see above). But as I remarked above, one does not need to know what process these works represent. In a sense they just represent themselves, even though they appropriate whole rooms or even buildings. They give themselves up to the viewer as abstract images with enigmatic dimensions in deeply satisfying colour. This is in no small way due to the quality of the pigments painted on, with only water as a binder, and then rubbed back to show the velvety deep surface; something the camera picks up brilliantly.
At the same time, the works are never just abstract forms because they play with depth, utilising the concrete planes of a space in a calculated manner. So their other effect comes from knowing that they are the result of quite specific choices made by the artist. This can be the decision to construct a flat reflective shape with metal rods and a metal square and place it on a lawn, suddenly creating the ludicrous idea of a grass cube. This is a bit like those carpet boxes for cats to sit and scratch on, set on similar carpet. With this new use of reflective steel in the outside environment, grass and sky are brought together in the same plane in the work, while the 3-dimensional illusion of the steel drawing is undone by the strange growth of grass on the cube. This is really working with your nose to the ground, and Stein would have been pleased with the result, I think.
Like Stein, Roberts makes art by staying with what is there, but because she cuts out the intermediacy of what it is about, making it 'here', she manages to create a wonder about that hereness. This can produce unexpected results. For example, the recent decision to use newspaper to cover large blocks of surfaces has led to new experiences, because the paper affects the outcome of the concept differently.
The geometry of the newspaper columns repeats the geometry of building blocks so that the architectonic effect of her intervention is underlined (pun), as is clearly visible in the reproduction of X.
It may have cut down on the labour intensive use of pigments (with all the cleaning up afterwards), but the paper itself has interesting aesthetic effects too, as well as introducing connotations of external life, so that, being there one begins to search the columns for news of X.
In the installation in Alice Springs the folded over edges of newspaper produced a straight rising boundary which mirrored the line of the outside roof. This resulted in an unplanned effect whereby the small folded triangles of paper formed a sort of stairway to heaven in a sawtoothed pattern repeating in miniature the sawtooth structure of the roofs. In this sense the artist's project resulted in delivering chance occurrences which escaped her control.
To draw our attention to the links between art and life, the process of seeing through walls and flattening perspectives, Exit, at the Art Gallery of NSW, uses a computer rendering of the architecture of the building to plot the entrances and remap them onto the surfaces of the project space gallery. These openings in the enclosed gallery space give us access to the art, but once we have found it, we can use them as 'exits' to escape from the confines, bringing the art experience with us into the world where it began and belongs.
Mia Campioni, 1998.