This is Roberta Booth’s third show here, and it finds her at full strength. The first, in 1996, was retrospective. The second, two years ago, was of ‘recent paintings’. This one is of new work, and seems to me to mark a sort of climax. She might well still say, like the song of a few years ago, ‘The only way is up’. That is certainly the spirit of her art: in meaning and in manner it is positive. But her art stands high and confronts us vigorously.
These paintings are amazingly generous. Large or small, they are full of incident: forms, patterns, colours, textures, usually arranged in what we read as a shallow space so that all this visual material comes at us, like a present or a well-filled plate, and all we need to do is receive and enjoy what is there. The largest painting is on four canvases and nearly fifteen feet wide, and connects with the largest picture in the 1998 show, In the Garden of the Beloved, Marrakesh, a mere five-and-a-half feet across. (The 1996 show was dominated by Earth Work II, more than eleven feet wide.) Large paintings speak of courage and commitment: they take time, are expensive to make and difficult to manage in a modest studio. It will be exciting to see it properly displayed. In That Same Garden has Moroccan mountains in the background, and a fountain and a gateway that are memories of Marrakesh. The four canvases make one continuous painting, which I read as a wonderland in which we see the artist wandering and a lot of the things and events, perhaps real, perhaps imagined (another reality) she encountered in her travels as well as in her life since.
Having known her work for a few years, I can spell it out for newcomers, to a degree. Much is obvious: leaves, flowers and other plants, trees, pebbles, streams, a bridge, a watering can and other objects, including a trumpet of sorts that sends out red notes like grapeshot, a flute, another sort or trumpet in the middle, chimes hanging from the main tree, and so on. I can tell you more: that spreading skirt-like shape in each canvas, and the blond shapes floating above each of them, is the artist, but also her sister, and perhaps you. In the fourth canvas, on the right, a pair of trousers strides along – it could be you or me – and there’s another skirt and hair-shape. Once we see people we can also see hands and feet, and join them to explore this burgeoning work of nature and of mankind. It truly does portray a wonderland, a near-wilderness full of marvels and vitality, and if there is a serpent in it, like in the Garden of Eden, it is a jolly serpent, spotted and striped and offering no immediate threat. In the same panel, on the right, we see two alert brushes, with red and pink on them, and they belong to an area of the picture that seems to speak of light and of excitement in abstract terms.
Also obvious is the visual richness of it all. A whole range of skills goes into making all these forms etc., and giving them their due weight and presence in the composition. There is also wit and cunning. The skirts have more than a hint of jackson Pollock about them, whose paintings Booth admires greatly. Some of her leaves remind me of the Douanier Rousseau whose cleverly naive paintings thrilled Picasso, Kandinsky and many others almost a century ago and we have all enjoyed since. This vast garden painting and Roberta Booth’s current obsession with gardens brings Monet to mind too, his garden at Giverny and the magical paintings he made of it in the last twenty years of his life. Of course these are different: he was working from a scene he had created for himself and knew intimately, and as he painted he wove a complex, ever-changing combination of poetic and naturalistic readings in which the material of paint and intervals, solids and transparencies, move us as much as the sight of waterlilies, water and reflected foliage.
Roberta Booth is more abstract than that. Whether or not Marrakesh provides the visual references, she is making large and small compilations of many sights and thoughts, facts and fictions, real and imagined spaces. Her art belongs to a post-Pop world, as well as a post-Cubism world in which images can be assembled from many sources. Her gardens are a wonderland because they are imagined and made, and each part of the long and elaborate making process involves the painter’s poetic engagement as well as her sheer abilities. One example: when we see figures we also see hands. But hand-forms also serve as flowers: they crowd a flowering tree in the third canvas and float around on their own, and make a blue and white pattern on the first, left, canvas. She works with analogies and rhymes, just as she composes in large choreographic movements that pull her four canvases together as one large painting. You may notice too that some forms cast shadows and some do not; some things are shown to be three-dimensional and other are quite flat. The skirt in the third canvas of In That Same Garden has on it Taoist symbols and letters. Taosim is the Chinese equivalent to the ‘logos’ of Greek thought and of Christianity, referring not to human logic but to the principle behind everything and the balanced, inclusive path we must follow if we wish to be wise. Booth is steeped in mystical knowledge as much as in her professional world as artist; she is a very grown-up Alice.
Roberta Booth’s small works draw on the same material and use some of the same visual components: space and un-space, bright colours and firm tones, Pollock-type splatter and slowly worked patterns. Their message, about the world of fact and the world of the enquiring spirit, remains much the same, inviting us to look beyond the dross and the futility of much around us. In a recent series of small paintings done on paper – indeed, on collaged newspaper (she has collected newspapers on her travels, and uses those that tell of major events) – she is setting mankind’s transient dramas against nature’s enduring, burgeoning life. Contrasts of form, pattern, colour and scale rule these paintings too, though they seem – to some extent must be – more immediate and spontaneous than the paintings on canvas. But everything she does is passionate and expressive, and I see the difference between her largest and her smallest works as more like the difference between operas or symphonies and short pieces of chamber music. Orchestration, publicness versus intimacy, developments that musicians call ‘argument’ versus relatively direct statements and reflections ... such variations give her work its specific character Everything she does invites our engagement, and grows in our eyes, minds and spirits as we make friends with it.
Norbert Lynton, 2000