Julie Roberts: Child
Honest and compelling exploration of childhood
This article is from 2010.
Julie Roberts’ new body of work takes the subject of childhood and explores the displacement of children in the mid 20th century. Her paintings do not make use of universal images; instead they are the result of in-depth research and working through stacks of resource material in the archives of Barnardo’s Homes, including the photos taken of the children upon arrival.
Her figures are dressed in 1950s attire and placed in domestic settings: the classroom, around the table, the bathroom. Painted in a colour scheme of green and brown shades, the application has developed into a stylised rendering. On the surface everything appears fine, but beneath lurks a deeply unsettling reality.
The imagery is polite and well behaved, but it has been painted with a strange set of coloured circles, forming patterns like the ring marks of soap bubbles burst all over the skin. It is as if Roberts brings the uncomfortable, unspoken friction, the anxiety and quarrels, the hardship, emotional strain, and aggressive uncertainty to the surface of these bodies as conduits, until it bubbles with eruptive disease of the skin, like pimpled adolescents unable to express themselves, thus bottling it all up and causing mild acne or severe eczema.
Without needing to spell it out, she is remarkably able to convey the psychological truths through the application of paint. The doll-like figures stand in for real people and they appear like clowns, almost fantastical and this makes it easier to look at children presented in an adult way. Roberts gives us those moments when you look into someone’s eyes and the truth is undeniably present.
The usual nostalgic notions of childhood are not present here. Awash with loneliness, one of the works deals with that uneasy voyeurism into the privacy of a child. A little boy sits small in a bath, busy and concentrating on washing his back. No mother is present to help him wash and to wrap him in a towel afterwards.
The viewer is aesthetically drawn into the painting to then uncover the stories and the relationships between the different works on show.
Talbot Rice Gallery, 650 2210, until 25 Sep, free.