Julie Roberts: The New Woman Artist

it is clear that the role of women is being elevated, celebrated and redefined

Feature by Morag Keil | 10 Feb 2007

Having had an interest in Roberts' work in my years as an art student I was
anxious to see this new exhibition. She was first brought to my attention in my first year: I was embarking on a project drawing hospital
gowns, when my tutors mentioned the popular straight jacket image that
floats on a canvas in the centre of a mowed green background. As a student
I was being taught the importance of justifying every decision made and
every action that made the work. I was intrigued by the green expanse in
Roberts' image and determined to know how she would justify such a
destination. It was also interesting to me that this use of one background
colour, covering a huge canvas that contains a small image or scene in the
centre, was not a one off decision but seems to be an aspect that appeared
often in her work.

Fast forward four years and Julie Roberts visits the Glasgow School of Art to give a talk and at last an insight into those backgrounds. If my memory serves me correctly she described the reasoning for them as an inability to deal with the edge. Despite the answer not being particularly deep or philosophically meaningful, I loved it! She had admitted a human reason for the negative fields of space around each image, and had felt no need to cover this with flat justifications - this vulnerability and her admission of it was more important that any reasoning. The fact was that these spaces seemed to be a tool she used to get around the inevitable edge of a canvas and create an object rather that an image.

The first room in her solo show 'The New Women Artist' at GOMA is filled with an oil painting from 2006: the image goes right to the edge and very deliberately. These images come from photographs taken of women in the 1900s studying art at the Glasgow School of Art. Despite this representing forward-thinking - in that the women are being educated, not stuck in the home raising and bearing children as in typical paintings of women in domestic settings - there is still a very domestic feel to the images. The images, with their false, scientifically aided depth, are reminiscent of the many Vermeer/Hammershoi women in interiors. However, I think it is my own inbuilt preconceptions of looking at a woman within a room within a painting that makes me assume the woman is a docile subject serving the needs of the on lookers.

Although the women are still the subject she also has her own subject. Each image appears like a set or stage and the deliberate brushstrokes and strong colour give the painting a design-like or even comic book feel. Along with the depth perception taken from the 2D source material (original photographs) these images seem flat again, like Vermeer's highly stylised paintings. This flatness again reminds me of the earlier works, with their expanse of colour. I find the content of these paintings of interest possibly because they are self referential for me and for Roberts' (both being female graduates of the Glasgow School of Art). Throughout this exhibition it is clear that the role of women is being elevated, celebrated and redefined. The title of the exhibition, 'The New Woman Artist' is, I believe, not a reference to Roberts herself, but an acknowledgement and celebration of women and the powerful role they play in the art world.

The second room has several watercolours from 2006 titled 'The Good Wife'.
These images are taken from a 1930's manual on step-by-step instructions for being a good housewife. Again Roberts uses her signature style of
colourful and deliberate brush marks. The images appear very much like
scenes in a storyboard that make domestic bliss seem dull. These images are
not placed within in a setting and the white paper stretches out to the edges. This makes the images of domesticity more detached from the real world than the images of the women artists.

The third and final room is painted a rich green and the room is dimly
lit. At first glance, when I see the small portraits that line the room, I
think that each one is a man, but this impression is dispelled by a lone woman - Victor Hugo's wife. All of the portraits are of these people on their death beds. These drawing are small and quieter than the works in the other rooms. The thing that strikes me is that each of the dead people have a description of what they are famous for e.g. author, painter etc. Madam Hugo, however, is merely described Victor Hugo's wife.

Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art until 25 Feb. Free.