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Fables Of Our Times

by Marianne Magnin

On HAPPY DAYS, a solo show curated by Marianne Magnin.

Michael Roberts is a painter, printmaker and draughtsman. Above all, he is a storyteller. 

Roberts’ practice heralds a complex narrative as much informed by his childhood as by current issues of war, injustice and man’s inability to face up to the realities of climate change. Throughout his disjointed upbringing, he would immerse himself in the devouring of comics and the act of dreaming, a stable space that he was able to carry across the many countries that his erring family encountered following his father’s successive postings in Kenya, Australia, Pakistan, Germany… In his adulthood, he is happiest locked into his studio “making more stories”. HAPPY DAYS presents a selection of recent works commenting on the mania triggered by Covid, though their genealogy stretches back to past bodies of work.


"Scenarios are created to examine our anxieties and fears, places are both familiar and uncomfortable. The architecture is prosaic, almost banal, the landscapes indeterminate, events are given space to unfold. These paintings act as modern fables for our uncertain and fractured times" - MR.


Whilst Roberts’ works contain a strong graphic and pop sensibility infused with colourful components, they are grounded in deeper tones. The joyful appearance and bright explosions of most canvases and papers lure us into getting closer and looking at scary characters entangled into sinister episodes. The recurring monsters clawing on what is the most precious to us are part of the ménagerie. There is bold humour steeped into a macabre discourse reminiscent of Mardi Gras’ transgressions and James Ensor’s grotesque depiction of our world’s drifting. There is simplified imagery in the manner of Philip Guston’s late period and of Looney Tunes, which brazenly comments on Trump, war and establishment failures, insanities, fears ramped up and dressed up as political instruments. Garlands of dead bodies linger around. Wolves surge to clean up after all. Notwithstanding the prescience of the Ukrainian war.


There is also generosity, to be found in the imagination, materials and techniques deployed. Up close, complexity and precision unfold. The works hover between abstraction and figuration, never repeating themselves, individually constructed by using a wide range of textures and components, from oil, ink, resin, glitter, glass beads, gold leaves to felt, dust and found wires. Thereby, Robert recognises the massive influence of his maternal grand-father, who used to fish out from skips discarded objects of all nature and give them a second lease of life: “we would go back home and better them”. 


So goes Robert’s relentless experimentation, which produces incongruous assemblages as much as it relies on his acceptance to fail and give another chance to works deemed unaccomplished. “Layering is quite important” to his practice. It is sourced in the rigorous discipline acquired during the artist’s formative years as a printmaker and materialises in almost ritualistic procedures, as illustrated by the patient accumulation of Indian ink over weeks ultimately forming 3D drops on the paper in Burn it Fucking Down (2011). The slow process provides a strong therapeutic framework.


Robert’s practice further pushes boundaries by harnessing the realm of words. First, each work is carefully titled, often incorporating expletives and vernacular expressions targeted at attentive audiences. It may even occur that the title precedes the work as is the case in It’s Only The End Of The World (2022). Second, typefaces would become the main character of a work, whose graphic qualities foreground solitary interjections, a consistent approach spanning decades from FREEDOM (2011) to FEAR NOT. (2022). Thirdly, some words gain autonomy when the artist’s dyslexia interferes, such as in the stencilled letters of HLEP (2022); the accident is then embraced and magnified. 


Words are only a subset of Robert’s vocabulary: amorphous shapes act as coded signs - for instance what may look like colourful petals, whether in isolation as featured in Deluge MP 2.5 (2020), The Lych-House (2020) and Chipped Nails (2019) or dressing the Emperor (2020), refer to bagged bodies. Other patterns recall microorganisms similar to those developed by Yuki Katsura or reference ancient symbols such as the Egyptian duat appearing in Things Behind The Sun (2020).  Fires and explosions pop up small and large, figuratively and through words. There are many more clues for us to decipher. They form a complex patchwork of signifiers populating the chapters of Robert’s storytelling.


“When working, I feel liberated”, says the artist. “I don't want to go anywhere. (...) The studio is a place of safety, exploration and dreaming and where to let things mature up”. - MR


A containment turned source of contentment for the young rebel grown into a disciplined disruptor.


Roberts exhibits internationally and teaches on the Fine Art MA at the Arts University Bournemouth UK. He works between London, UK and Provence, France.

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