BY Ross Sinclair in Reviews | 04 SEP 92
Featured in
Issue 6

Julie Roberts

BY Ross Sinclair in Reviews | 04 SEP 92

Don't you think sometimes that the whole protracted saga about painting being dead, dead on, or indeed neither of the two sometimes is just dead boring. Artists do it, dealers deal it, collectors buy it and here you are reading about it. I mean get over it. For Young British Artists, painting seems a bit like flares or Top of the Pops variously cool or uncool, next year's new style or lst year's old fashions, sometimes taking a back seat but never disappearing altogether.

It seems that there's quite a lot of young artists painting at the moment. The most intersting and engaging of this work is often shored up with some sturdy conceptual foundations or alternatively stripped of all associative elements and described variously as 'process', 'formalist', or sometimes optimistically as 'spiritual'. Julie Roberts' recent paintings seems to fall neatly outside any of these familiar strategies yet remain engaging, curious and well, really quite beautiful.

This is odd since at first glance the paintings themselves appear to be inhabited by eqipment and contraptions liberated from an Orwellian psychodrama located in the torture chamber of some Stalinist Euro Gulag. You might be forgiven for thinking that they're just the surplus props from a drab Frankenstein B-movie, where daped sheets conceal hidden shapes, and impressions of bodies left on pillows look as though they might still be warm. It is with some relief you realise that these images are nothing of the kind. The objects Roberts paints are, in fact, the latest thing in state of the art medical furniture and apparatus.

Contrary to the potential melodrama inspired by such concerns, Roberts approaches her subjects in a detached and straightforward manner. The objects themselves (and they are always objectified) are presented routinely, isolated on a large flat field of some appropriately nondescript tone. Her larger canvases are generally more successful than the smaller groups. In these larger paintings the objects have more room to breathe. They appear to be floating in a vacuum, unattached to any of the surfaces which surround them, in suspended animation.

Roberts selects her subjects variously from glossy hardware brochures sent as mailshots to consultants, and personal visits to various hospitals such as the Honved Central hospital in Budapest where she photographs pieces in situ. Whatever form the research takes, the objects are painted from photographs.

Much of the equipment she chooses to picture ib her gloomy, brooding paintings is designed (by men) with the purpose of rendering the patient (often a woman) prone, motionless and physically alert. The paintings propose an examination of the relationship between the individual and the institution of medicine, public and private, amateur versus professional. They evoke a difficult situation when past the point of our intervention we have given ourselves up to Science.

So, obliquely, but without exception, the works in this show allude to the body collapsing and failing us, which is kind if interesting from an artist who is at an age when everyone still thinks that they are going to live forever. Thankfully there is no evidence of a mid-life menopausal death fixation (male or female) here. What is apparent is that for many years now the constant trail of diseased and broken bodies that flicker across our TV screens have managed to render once distressing images of the body's fragility commonplace, abstract and banal. The images Roberts presents to us, cool and detached, are all the more ghoulish for the very absence of body. The objects appear beckoning and vigilant, sentinel like. A human presence is implied, but always removed. They kind of look as if they are waiting just for you to fall ill. Roberts paints these works in series, designed to imply a certain feeling or aura depending on eqipment selected. Always they are imbued with a strong institutional aura, the unmistakeable dulled routine of hospital life.

Roberts often goes along to visit the doctors in the hospitals who use this equipment to chat about what kind of impression this apparatus leaves on its aptients and how they the doctors respond to it. The doctors in turn are always interested to know exactly what interest an artist could possibly have in such specialised pieces as the Invitrio Fertilisation unit or the latest line in silicone breast implants. Of course the doctors believe in the science of their medicine and distance themselves emotionally from their 'tools' and 'subjects'. It is consequently a reappraisal of this psychological and emotive response to the hardware of modern medicine that is proposed in Roberts' work.

It is difficult to ignore that implicit in this area of investigation is a discourse with the dialectics of Feminist theory. The very subject matter of medicine she chooses is of course a political issue. Can the re-appropriation of the body, affirmation of the right to choose and representing, in fact physically reforming the tools of Medicine become politicised through the act of painting? Contrary to certain notions of Feminist art theory Roberts does not attempt to confront or re-formulate ideas of painting itself. Her actual painting style is representational and functional, almost style-less. The work presents the viewer with contradictions - it demands that a position be taken. Roberts appears disinterested in elongated debates about the pros and cons of contemporary painting and instead gets on with the job at hand. In doing so she appears to abdicate a certain responsibility for the work, but in the process she just manages to transpose it on to the viewer.