Julie Roberts (4 stars)

A woman's work

Alexander Kennedy looks at new paintings by Julie Roberts, in which an early feminist past becomes very present.

After a century of feminism and post-feminisms, the word ‘woman’ has been constructed and deconstructed in such an enormous collection of philosophical and psychoanalytic tomes by some of the world’s greatest minds (Freud, de Beauvoir, Lacan, Kristeva, Spivak, etc), that it is difficult to take the word at ‘face value’ - it is impossible to even know what that would entail. The new work entitled The New Woman Artist by Welsh-born, Carlisle-based artist Julie Roberts at GoMA, Glasgow, raises this difficult banner, using it as subject matter and presenting representations of the late 19th century female artist as worker - freed from the role of muse, model, mistress and mother.

Roberts utilises early photographs from the Glasgow School of Art archives that show female artists painting and drawing in various locations around the - at that time - newly opened Mackintosh building. Occasionally Roberts invents figures (as in ‘Girls Painting (The Drawing Lesson)’, placing them in the empty spaces in her original source photos, before repainting the scene with these ghosts from the future. As an artist who trained at GSA, Roberts was drawn to the institution because of its reputation for creating great painters. Mostly male, we would be led to believe. So in this reassessment of history, which is both an assessment of the public (the recorded past of the school) and the private, Roberts creates images that manage to capture something of the difficulty that women artists feel when confronted with the ‘boys club’ mentality that surrounds painting, without making this explicit or the reductive justification for her work. The work is not drearily political, but looks at the past and the present with the critical eye of an artist, demonstrating that rosy nostalgia is always unchecked fascism.

The lines that describe the figures loop and twist like ribbons, with the brink of every fold reduced to a thin plane that hovers over the depicted figures’ bodies. In this way, what could be described as extremely flat graphic renditions take on a dimensionality that whips the representational subjects of the canvas into shimmering optical motion - the eye jumps quickly between tones that flicker and resolve only in the retina. Roberts’ drawing style has similarities with Alasdair Gray, Steven Campbell and Adrian Wisniewski, with a painterly approach that recalls the pixillated hyper realism of Chuck Close. It’s a very strange mix of influences but it works.

Some of the figures invoke the large hooped ‘spook school’ auras of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and her sister Francis Macdonald McNair (especially in ‘Wash Day’ and ‘Veil’). This move ‘towards the spiritual’ is also marked, sexed and gendered by Roberts, with figures in her ‘Good Wife Series’ ironically acting as religious types. Mothers become The Holy Mother, a housewife exits the scene in an unholy Ascension, with work-a-day shoes and the head of a broom jutting into the picture plane. Most women will be buried in the clothes they ironed for themselves.

Julie Roberts: The New Woman Artist, GoMA, Glasgow, until Sun 25 Feb

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