An obvious question to ask about Roger Roberts’ Nest paintings is ‘what do they mean?’ I’m inclined to see them as formalist exercises, rather than as primarily symbolic or representational. That is not to say that these closely observed nests are without meaning beyond their decorative appearance. I think what most clearly distinguishes them from the merely decorative, and what shows they are not just the pastime of a bird lover, is the magnified scale of each depicted nest, and the way it is set in some larger, often much larger, abstract colour space.
So my own direction of interpreting these paintings is formalist. Once an artist has completed a work, however, he cannot expect to control the interpretations other people put on it. At the same time, these interpreters will want to feel that they have insights into the artist’s own true motivations, even if those motivations are unconscious ones. Roger tells the story of how a visitor to his exhibition suggested that the dark interior of the nest in his Nest Series #4 compels a focussing of attention and produces a mandala effect. What makes this interpretation plausible is that, according to Carl Jung’s ideas about such matters, it need not have been any part of Roger’s conscious intention—he need not even have known what a mandala is. Herbert Read, the poet and political anarchist who became one of the most influential art theorists of the twentieth century, tells of a certain “apocalyptic experience” that changed his life. Among many hundreds of children’s drawings that he had collected in his research he came across an image drawn by a five-year-old girl which she had called “Snake around the World and a Boat”. Read was deeply moved when he recognised the circular segmented image to be a mandala—the ancient symbol of psychic unity that is universally found in prehistoric and primitive art, and in all the cultures of history (1). He saw it as proof of his friend Carl Jung’s theories about archetypal imagery. The book Read wrote in 1943 in consequence of this revelation, his Education Through Art, set the course of art education in Britain and Australia in the second half of the twentieth century. The visitor who saw Roger’s nests as mandalic was not wrong, he was only showing Roger how his searching might be guided by senses he doesn’t know are within him.
Such Jungian ideas are not the ones that most immediately come to my mind when I look at Roger Roberts’ Nest paintings, but I do think there is good reason to seek out interpretations that Roger himself may not have consciously thought of. A lifetime of active looking and thinking about imagery are factors that weigh in his decision making. I am inclined to think he is more influenced by twentieth century styles of abstract art than the ornithological naturalism of his images would lead one to expect. Each new painting involves choices that are only partly directed by its subject—i.e. the contingencies of each new-found nest. The paintings range between the naturalism of a seventeenth century Dutch still life, and a kind of abstraction reminiscent of an Adolph Gottlieb. In the most extreme abstractions the background is a field of colour with no hint of cast shadow; the distance is not so much infinite as it is indeterminate. In these works, too, there is no sense of orientation; perhaps we are looking down on the nest from above, but there is really no up, down, or sideways remaining in the abstract space of the painting. In these most abstract works the format is square and the nest is centrally placed. In the still life versions the format may be rectangular, the nest may be off-centre and it is seen obliquely, casting its shadow on the field of colour. In these paintings we can the nest as having weight, and we are given a sense of the physical forces that will cause it to disintegrate. The interwoven twigs and debris of the carefully observed nests are reminiscent of the overlapping skeins of dribbled paint in a Jackson Pollock. With Roger’s paintings, however, we have the sense of the instinctive work of some earlier avian maker having worked painstakingly to generate a pattern. Roger, as a conscious and deliberative artist, can only follow, though with his own deliberated modifications and ‘improvements’.
As Roger works his way through the changes and variations of the Nest paintings we might expect the idea to be gradually exhausted, so that some other subject, or some quite different approach, comes into his view. After a long career working as a designer meeting his clients’ demands, Roger is venturing into a career as an artist in which he has to meet the demands of his own criticism. I suspect that, as he takes his art more and more seriously, he is going to find himself facing a more demanding critic than he ever had before.
Dr Alan Lee
(1) David Thistlewood, Herbert Read: Formlessness and Form (1984), p. 112.