The paintings selected for this solo exhibition represent one phase of Roberta Booth’s work. The period is 1974 to 1989; the images are all associated with her exploration of machine-made forms as themselves and as analogues for humanity.
Modern artists have both celebrated the impersonal geometry and gleaming surfaces of machinery and presented mechanical devices as stand-ins for those who use them. Duchamp, Léger, De Chirico and Ernst are outstanding instances, each demonstrating a different purpose and meaning. The Surrealists emphasized what art has always known, that images can strike all the more deeply for not imitating visible reality but starting from the myriad fantasies that make up dreams and daydreams. Psychology confirms that our irrational visions are not isolated adventures but part of humanity’s ancient and ongoing endeavour to find meaning and value in existence. To involve the sometimes awesome, often all too familiar forms of technology in these visions is merely natural, especially as these forms and their actions themselves echo human behaviour.
These comments outline the background of Roberta Booth’s work in this vein. The first thing likely to strike one about these paintings is their technical proficiency. Those turning forms, solid yet melted and disturbed by light and reflections, are wholly convincing though we know they are just paint on canvas. The second is the shocking use she makes of what we call nature: the glimpses of everyone’s perfect garden behind Family Portrait, the swirling water, plants and bubbles of By Still Waters, rendering that thrusting propellor impotent, its energy dissipated, the benign sky into which the serried blades of Earth Work II seem to be carried like ascending souls. In the last works of the series, such as Dark Angel, the almost colourless metal forms, delicately brushed-on, are flanked by a thick crust of paint that stands for nature and for personal action and implies permanent enmity. We encounter her visionary pieces of reality at a size and at a relative scale within her compositions that impose them on our memories.
Booth’s technical range expands to cope with her enlarging inventiveness. From her critical, partly sympathetic effigy of domestic hierarchies in Family Portrait it is a long way to that amazing array in Earth Work II, of ploughshares which lose their function and physicality to become personages in silent procession, as timeless as the Parthenon frieze, as other worldly as a Last Judgement. Another dimension is opened up in Split Infinity. This takes us into a world of science fiction, a metallic environment of smooth surfaces and ambiguously positive/negative openings floating in a space without weight or top and bottom. lt is the inside of a cheese grater... as seen, recognized and transformed by the artist. Similar discoveries are celebrated in other images: the inside of a washing-machine, two windscreen wipers in close formation denying us access to the moist garden beyond, the cutting cylinder of a lawnmower. But Booth can also see marvellous forms and anthropomorphic hints in a Can Opener by itself, an awesome presence and personality.
Everything is there for us to see, and always there is more than meets the eye. What appears factual turns out to be a poetic statement, a marvelling at the world of sight as well as intimations of anxiety. Objectivity turns out to be a means of personal expression. Insistently worldly images take on transcendental character and significance, lifted out of time. We are obsessed with the thought that machines might take over the world, yet we made them in our own image. In conquering and controlling the world we create for ourselves monsters not very different from the demons that once lurked behind every hedge. Roberta Booth’s dramas illuminate both the threat and its origin in our own very human concerns, picturing them in original and indeed beautiful artistic terms.
Norbert Lynton, 1996