This exhibition complements Roberta Booth – Painting 1974-1989 which drew wide attention here two years ago.
Booth’s new work differs strikingly from what preceded it. Visitors may recall the painting that dominated the 1996 show: Earth Work Il, three-and-a-half metres long. Those who do not will find it quoted here in One More Dance. In fact, she refers several times in the new work to her earlier paintings, especially to the metallic objects that were her motifs then: ploughshares rising like sails and paired like lovers, family groups of taps and related screwing devices, aggressive screenwipers and so forth. Familiar and mysterious at the same time, these machine-made objects served her as actors enacting human events and situations.
That remains the clue to all her work. Booth has changed her manner together with her motifs. Where she worked more graphically and tonally, with only the settings allowing her skills with colour and texture to show, now paint and painting rule. Contrasting colours and textures, leaps from light to dark, near to distant, large to small, make for extraordinary vividness. Some of her compositions are hieratic, as in Precious Gifts and Woman. Mostly they are now kaleidoscopic: objects and vistas seemed jumbled together. Actually they are placed strategically, leading our eyes around her pictures. They address us ardently but don’t always disclose their meaning at once.
Give them time. Motifs recur. The way they are treated varies, just like shirts and dresses differ day to day yet are still shirts and dresses, with the painter’s feelings but also with their role in the painting.What is obviously a palette, as in All that is Secret is not Hidden, becomes a massive slab, in Because the Piper Plays the Tune. Hard things may be soft, soft hard. Hard pin-striped shapes must refer to ‘the city’; with them come bossy buildings, New York or Kensington-style. Trees and fields, distant hills, clouds and water, hands, shoes and boots: such familiar things are metaphors for us to engage with. Eggs are eggs, hands are hands, hearts are hearts and sometimes broken, but these are metaphors too. They mingle with symbolic forms as in dreams or under strong emotions.
It is all very personal. Booth’s titles often come from poems and also from the language of mysticism. The settings can be specific, as in her visual tone-poem about Marrakesh, In the Garden of the Beloved, based on drawings and watercolours made on the spot. Usually they are not, but rather a recollecting in tranquillity of experiences that are not site-specific. Intuition rules, but not chance. See her ebullient but careful way with physical and visual effects: cheeky polka dots in thick paint here, there an elegant handwritten pattern that hints at Pollock. Pictures make pictorial demands but significant objects can also need disguising. All that is Secret is not Hidden, indeed: nothing is hidden but not everything is made obvious.
She speaks of daily-life experience as well as from paths of mysticism. I admire the up-frontness of her idiom, at once pop and cultured, and also her technical mastery She mostly works with oil paints over acrylic, sometimes also with oil pastels, keeping every square inch alive, ecstatic even. There’s no one else who speaks of the sensory and spiritual with such vigour. The results may seem Surrealistic, but we get closer to them if we think of them as Baroque and, like the real, super-realistic Baroque, as celebratory. There is pain as well as joy in her images but above all they are about being alive. Like Frank Stella, who has lectured brilliantly about the Baroque and whom she has long admired, she pushes her work over the top in artful ways that keeps her art thrilling long after the first impact. It is marked by fullness and generosity but is short on academic cajolery.
Norbert Lynton, 1998