4 - 18 September 2008

Matthew Roberts

Roberts will meld together classic Caravaggio and Durer like imagery with contemporary visual media examples. Reducing the whole history of western image making in to simple common types, war, beauty etc. The deliberate use of large scale charcoal drawings, considered almost naive by contemporary arts plethora of mediums, serves to deliver up to the audience a universal art ‘type’, charcoal being a firmly established medium in everything from dawn of civilization cave drawings to primary school art lessons to community life drawing classes and even painting mock ups by the great masters of 20th century art.

My current experiment in intertwining works by Caravaggio and the Caraviggisti with pictures drawn from contemporary sources started totally by chance using two images that really struck me as correct to use together – the image of Judith combined with the soldier. On the face of it, no great symbolic leap. But the investigation which began at university, of possibilities for using parallel images from old masterworks in mashups with contemporary images, stayed with me over time and was really only fully developed in the process of creating this current set of drawings.

That Caravaggio’s work is baroque is not altogether coincidental – if we remember that the term “baroque” comes from the Spanish word barroco, meaning a pearl which is not round but of unpredictable and elaborate shape. This unpredictability and irregularity encapsulates the counterbalance between rough sketching and refined detail that is present in the work.

The uniqueness of the pearl also encapsulates a fundamental truth of contemporary life – unpredictability, masses of complex detail which even in an age of endless, faceless reproducibility, are also strangely organic. The drawings grew and mutated, taking their form from the irritant of experience and environment, as does the pearl – each one formed from the same natural processes, seemingly the same, yet unique at the individual level.

This idea of underlying continuity, and the interplay of individual experience with timeless tropes of general human experience, informs an examination of a belief. A belief that while our external environment and our technological tools for creating representations of that environment may have changed in the last half-millenium, the underlying internals of our human experience today are more or less the same as they we 500 years ago when Caravaggio created his works.

This may seem like another fairly self-evident premise, to be sure. But it isn’t as simple as saying “Everything’s the same as it ever was.” and moving on. The process of investigating this thematic idea is centered for me in personal experience, in the actual process of generating art, of doing, that in itself embodies the concept. The experiential process of making the drawings themselves is as important as the content created. The ideas evolved as the work is produced, the validity of the thesis is embodied in the effectiveness of the art as a conveyance, and the layers of argument exist in the spatial and representational layers of the drawings.

That being said the experiential nature of the works meant that an industrially mechanized or photomechanical approach didn’t meet my “hands on” needs. Charcoal is such a base level element to art making. It is tactile – rubbing burned pieces of stick on paper… it has a fragility and mutability which mechanical reproduction lacks. I wanted to stand in front of these sheets of paper for hours and days drawing and trying to reproduce some semblance of the kind of scale and tone that they old masters brought forth in their works.

However I was not able, nor did I desire, to remove myself entirely from mechanical reproduction. I am primarily a printmaker by trade, and the utility of a mechanical copy of an image, however individual each impression may be, is therefore not lost on me. So it is particularly telling that I chose to project Caravaggio’s Judith, and the other original images I am recreating, onto the paper so as to create a better facsimile of the original, a copy, if still generated by hand with the aid of a machine, rather than with a machine alone. Indeed the source images I used were themselves mechanical reproductions, further complicating the layers of mechanical and organic reproduction at work within the piece.

Robert Rauschenberg in his screen print paintings and hydrocarbon transfers used innovative combinations of mass media imagery to draw parallels between the reproducibility of images and the loss of human individuality implied by mechanical reproduction.

I agree with Rauschenberg that people in a post-postmodern age have undergone a flattening of experience, but I disagree that it removes our fundamental individuality as human beings, even in a highly mechanized society. To that end I have used a similar compositing technique to Rauschenberg’s, but with a highly traditional, non-mechanical material – charcoal. A material that has a specific tactile, physical,  relationship with the artist, and is in its own way fragile on the canvas.

The fragility of the charcoal drawing is fundamental, embodying a quality of singularity that mechanically reproduced images lack. You can smudge it in the process of creating it, and it will never after be what it was before.

For our experience is singular to us, even if there may be repeated or reproduced themes of love, sadness, fear and death that replay over the ages. Even when experience is abstracted into online communication, completely removed down to binary ones and zeros, the abstraction does not remove our identities – it only provides new ways of understanding them, by generating relationships between historical models and contemporary experience.

Matthew Roberts and Benjamin Roberts