About The Artist
1965 - 2009
The weft, those varied horizontal threads that provide the colour, pattern and the pictorial surface to woven cloth, can be seen as the figures, images, objects and surroundings that Roberts so painstakingly depicts, and the symbolic meanings that they suggest. He is careful not to interpret his own work too closely, believing that there must be space for each viewer to construct his or her own meanings from the paintings, and states that his paintings essentially seek to evoke a sense of mystery that resonates with the viewer or to suggest a poetic promise of meaning, but never closure. However, recurring symbols provide abundant material for interpretation. Many works show a robed woman, sitting or standing quietly or engaged in some activity, yet always still, calm and tranquil. She is an archetype, not a specific person, a Madonna or mother, sister or daughter, a teacher or a bearer of new life, or a metaphor for some aspect of the human condition, such as human spirituality, the unconscious, the meditative and the instinctive. She is juxtaposed with myriad other signs: signs of the mundane, everyday world, such as plastic chairs, crates and bowls; allusions to Africa, such as enclosures made from thatch or sticks; references to Europe or the East in roses, patterned hangings, embroidered cloths and trellises. Through these images, Roberts alludes to various cultural traditions. One such is the tradition of western painting that peaked during the Italian Renaissance (the bird, for example, may represent the angel of the annunciation), as well as the art of ancient Greece, Rome, the Gothic and the Middle East. Traces can be found of Nigerian Ife figures, Picasso’s Mediterranean women, the painting on Fulani cattle, and many other visual sources.
Equally important are symbols of nature such as flowers, cows, birds, landscapes, water in many forms, fossils, local fauna and flora, such as acacia trees and buck. Readings of these are varied and potentially complex. For example, the bird is often a messenger, of rain, of change or of the passing of time. The cow has long fascinated Roberts, because of the intimate and long relationship between man and cattle in Africa. The cow could signify possession and wealth, or, placed on a palette or trestle, suggest an object of worship or the female principle. Water is a sign of plenty, luxury and ease, or of spiritual renewal. It also represents the female principle and the subconscious. The landscapes are typical of South Africa with its grasslands, thorn bush or ploughed fields, and give a sense of place.
Roberts responds to nature, to his urban environment, to art and to the cultures that exist around him, weaving them into his highly personal paintings and, more recently, his sculptures. All these symbols resonate, reflect or reinforce each other. They give rise to more abstract considerations, which may be specific to an individual work, but which, taken as a whole, often construct meditations about the relationship of man to nature, the tendency and ability to control and tame nature, the tension between containment and freedom, the cyclical passage of time, the workings of memory and the interrelationships between nature and culture.
Supporting the weft is the warp, the underlying structures of hidden vertical threads that give strength and stability to a piece of cloth. In terms of the paintings, they are the formal, painterly aspects that are more hidden than the overt images, but are equally vital in the totality of each painting. The most important of these is pattern. Roberts covers almost every centimeter of the painted surface with carefully constructed patterns: herring bone, flower and trellis pattern, birds, or more abstract patterns of interwoven paint marks. According to the art historian, EH Gombrich (1979:96-163), pattern is a vital component of visual art, providing visual stimulation and selective focus, leading the viewer’s eye through the painting and giving intense visual pleasure. It creates intricacy of form, it “leads the eye a wanton kind of chase, and from the pleasure that it gives the mind, entitles it to the name of beautiful” (Gombrich 1979:96).
So pattern has many functions in paintings such as those of Kevin Roberts. It sets up a density of texture; forms outlines, contours and spaces; defines and clarifies, while at the same time, it integrates different parts of the paintings by setting up echoes and resonances between surfaces; it creates a sense of energy and movement and can be full of nuances, surprises and subtlety. Gombrich (1979:163) defines decoration as the superimposing of one pattern on another, and certainly Roberts does this, which increases the intricacy of the works.
Furthermore, pattern has significance and carries meanings. The viewer recognizes motifs, such as birds, flowers or leaves, and can then relate these to more realistic depictions of the same images. So, for example, in Messages of rain (2004), the vine pattern is symbolic of the potential fruitfulness of the presently dry land; in the sky, the same pattern is reminiscent of raindrops or small, floating feathers. On the canopy itself, the pattern is what it is, a patterned fabric. The same pattern is echoed on the woman’s dress, sign of fecundity and creativity. Here it is interwoven with a rhythmic pattern of flying birds, reflecting the bird perched on the twig that the woman holds, indicating that she has heard and understood the message that the bird, or messenger, brings, the message of rain and coming fruitfulness. The herringbone pattern in the shade of the canopy shows the artificiality of shade in the sun-filled landscape. So the patterns themselves can be interpreted, and enrich the expressive potential of the paintings.
Some patterns are more covert in their providence and meanings, becoming ambiguous. The pattern on the blanket that covers the back of Einstein’s horse, () combines herringbone, various flowers patterns, as well as more varied and unreadable blue markings. These are, in fact, a mirror image of Einstein’s proof of the equation E=mc² taken from a historical photograph, thus a sign of esoteric and even occult knowledge. So the patterns are imagined or invented by the artist, as well as discovered in many places and from many sources. They refer to nature and culture, to Africa and Europe and engage the viewer, not only through enhanced image perception and visual delight, but also in the creative act of interpretation. They communicate values, beliefs, pleasure, labour and a “joy in the senses”(Fuller 1985:8, 248).
Holding all this complexity and variety together is the formal composition, which is always balanced, stable and frontal, like the pyramidal and symmetrical arrangements of much Renaissance painting. This gives an overall sense of stillness and repose to the very full and animated surfaces.
The creation of these surfaces, the actual making of these patterns and images, is an extremely time-consuming one for Roberts, requiring consummate craftsmanship. This is something of a rare activity in the broader field of contemporary art, where, as the painter Balthus (In Wright 2001:51-52) states, most artist have forgotten that painting is, above all, the craft of painting. He declares that painting is the “love of looking at everyday beauty … of seeing ordinary things as enchanting and seductive, and letting them switch on the imagination and connect to memory”. This is very close to Roberts’ approach to painting, one based on a mastery of paint, which is rarer today, as Peter Fuller (1985:9) points out, than one would expect. Such mastery asserts values which refer to much traditional painting, such as individual creativity, accountability and uncompromising commitment to quality.
Roberts affirms the visual, or let us call it the ‘beautiful’, as the essence of his art. Beauty itself is a problematic notion in contemporary art discourse, and is often avoided in contemporary art. Yet, as art critic Dave Hickey (1993:11) argues, beauty might well be the major issue of art since the 1990s. He suggests that beauty has been inconsequential since the advent of Modernism, and that most contemporary art uses beauty, if it is present at all, only as critique. This ignores the potential of beauty as celebration and, furthermore, as “the image’s single claim to be looked at – and to be believed” (Hickey 1993:18). Hickey wonders how we have come to do without it in contemporary art, which is so often theoretical and didactic.
Kevin Roberts’ paintings explore beauty, craftsmanship, pattern and image as part of an integrated whole. In this, he too becomes part of a tapestry of painting stretching from the traditional to the contemporary and including, not only Renaissance painting, but artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites, Seurat, Matisse, and South African painters such as Walter Battiss, Alexis Preller, Christo Coetzee, Andrew Verster, Norman Catherine, Cyril Coetzee and Neil Rodger.
June to December, lived and worked in the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, as part of the prize for the Volkskas Atelier 1995.
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