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Roberts, Neil - 1998.80

Neil Roberts

1,800 bounces. 8.1.96 1996
boot polish on Stonehenge rag paper
76.5 x 56.5 cm
Purchased 1998

Neil Roberts’ bounces drawings embody the process of their making in their surfaces. To some degree this is true of many works of art, particularly drawings, but the marks of these drawings are not made with pastel, charcoal, pencil or brush and ink, but with boot polish, transferred through the repeated action of bouncing a ball onto sheets of paper on the floor – hundreds and thousands of times. In the act of transferring the polish to the paper, the artist has encapsulated, and transformed, the physical energy of the bouncing ball and his own body in the drawings.

The series title of these drawings – some dozens of which were made between 1995 and 1999 – is Bradman’s tank. This references the story of Donald Bradman, widely acknowledged to be Australia’s greatest cricketer, honing his youthful skills by repeatedly throwing a golf ball against a water tank and attempting to hit it with a cricket stump. The key threads in the story are repetition, energy and endurance, themes and qualities that surface frequently in the art of Roberts.

The rituals and forms of energy associated with masculinity and the lives of men was an integral aspect of Roberts’ art practice. His work often incorporated everyday objects such as worn tools, footballs, and workers’ gloves and aprons, all bearing the traces of their functional lives. In manipulating and rearranging these components, he both saluted the activities and exertions of daily life, work and sport, and imagined a more nuanced kind of masculinity: introspective, deconstructed, reconstructed and suffused with poetry.

Roberts originally trained as a glass artist and arrived in Canberra in 1983 to teach at the Australian National University School of Art with Klaus Moje, the inaugural head of the Glass Workshop. His practice rapidly broadened into that of an artist who worked across mediums, producing lively and varied combinations of assemblage, and he received substantial public commissions.

Despite the breadth of materials and mediums Roberts’ engaged – from neon signs to boot polish – there is an aesthetic that is consistent throughout his work: simplicity of form, attention to process, the repetition of marks, the subtle creation of pattern and the appeal to order.

In this group of four drawings – 1,800 bounces. 8.1.96, 2,200 bounces 9.1.96, 3000 bounces 29.11.95, 3,200. bounces 8.1.96 – it is evident that the artist has rhythmically and consistently worked over the surface of the paper with the bouncing ball, exercising control over the apparently random act of bouncing and carefully building up the pattern and patina of each drawing. Roberts described this activity and its results as ‘bruising’, and the metaphor holds for the variable effects of the number of bounces: the largest number produces the blackest and most dense patterning. Bruised paper, bruised hands.

The action of bouncing and its effects brings a performative aspect of these works into play. Like the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, the bounce drawings hold the energy of the artist’s exertions but, unlike Pollock’s work, the artist’s tool – the ball – is one with which the hand has an existing, primary relationship. The overlap between artistic and sporting skills, which Roberts engaged with extensively in his practice, is there on the page, as it is in the focus and concentration of those repeated marks. And in the soft, velvety patina, myriad patterns and fluid sensuality of the bounce drawings, in their tender surfaces, the artist has perfectly encapsulated the converse of playing hardball.

Deborah Clark is Senior Curator, Visual Arts, Canberra Museum and Gallery.

© Neil Roberts/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017

From the series
Roberts, Neil - 1998.81
Neil Roberts

2,200 bounces 9.1.96 1996
boot polish on Stonehenge rag paper
76.5 x 56.5 cm
Purchased 1999

Roberts, Neil - 1998.79
Neil Roberts

3,200 bounces. 8.1.96 1996
boot polish on Stonehenge rag paper
76.5 x 56.5 cm
Purchased 2000

Roberts, Neil - 1998.82
Neil Roberts

3000 bounces 29.11.95 1996
boot polish on Stonehenge rag paper
76.5 x 56.5 cm
Purchased 2001