19 March 2021: Upstairs @ Bamboo, Melville
The ultimate measure of an artist’s presence in the market is style. Can they be identified by their work alone? Is their creative output recognisable without the guiding presence of gallerists, agents and publicists?
With her distinctive use of colour, pattern and mark making, Roby Field’s work holds its own place in the Jozi arts world. Her forthcoming solo show – a presentation of large canvasses that have evolved over a period of five years – cements this place with an offering of emotive and eye catching narratives.
Field’s bold colour choices shock at first glance, then pull the viewer into a complex story featuring rich overlapping textures of charcoal, acrylic and Indian ink. Beneath the surface live repeat washes of colour, often applied over many weeks and months, including ink run and splattered in a painstaking, guided process. On a technical level, this is one of the reasons why Field’s art is so distinctive. She paints according to her own unique process, and it shows.
The foundational structure of her art reflects Field’s love of cartography, aerial photography and maps as she follows a process that she explains as an exploration of the geography of the human heart: an examination of an emotion, political thought or lived experience as if it was a land mass or geographic area able to be tracked, mapped, dissected and analysed. Central to this notion is her exploration of the ever-shifting borders of human experience, which her work shows to be equally relevant to the individual journey and the geo-political shaping of our world.
The textured layering of her work is why it can take her years to build a canvas. To some this might seem like a painfully slow approach to creativity, but for Field the extended nature of the process is intentionally meditative, and one which allows her to slowly unpick and examine her feelings about the swirling socio political forces of 21st century life.
At the centre of many of Field’s works are figurative characters referencing ancient tribal art. These purposefully simplistic figures nonetheless pack a lot of emotion and recur across her different pieces. She describes them as her own, custom-grown archetypes: a set of core characters she’s developing that allow her tell nuanced stories and examine complex political ideas. They range from characters reflecting the issues of current times (including Aaliyah, The Trustafarian, the Three Headed Penis, The Occupier) to more abstract conceptions (The Artist, The Addict, Holding on So Tight, The Watchers). Field deploys these archetypes across the body of work, an approach which allows her to roam across a range of different themes and topics.
Field’s detailed and methodical combination of mediums and materials reflects the decades she’s spent in different parts of the Jozi arts world. As owner and curator of Unity Gallery between 2003 and 2013 she worked with many of today’s most prominent rising artists. This experience has given her a detailed understanding of the nuances of day-to-day art life in the studio environment, far away from the performative context of an exhibition opening. From print making to collage, oils, silk, craft and waste art, she has worked with Jozi creatives of all ages and in all mediums for over twenty years, and the weight of this collective experience shines through her work.
Field’s art also shows her diversity of experience in its happy leveraging of overlapping pop culture references, from hip hop music to disability documentary series to strange personal encounters with a neighbourhood Whatsapp group. The result is a journey across many of the most intriguing subjects of our time – but it’s also one that never forgets history. She repeatedly applies the motifs of imperial communication (including cancel stamps, penny symbols and the shadow edges of stamps) to tie our digital age to the historical, implying that many of the features of today’s ideologically conflicted world have in fact been with us for an eternity – and are likely to stretch well into the future.
Aside from conventional fine art life Field has also spent many years walking the line between art and craft. Her art in the early part of the 21st century featured a lot of waste (from computer parts to tin can waste) and, in a unique approach, conventional hardware materials such as nails, bolts and screws. She also conceived and ran AfriCan – a job creation project that created designer craft out of discarded ring pulls from tin cans – for over a decade, an experience which embedded her love of the methodical, meditative repetition that has underpinned so much of the continent’s creativity over the years.
It’s fitting that Allow Me to Introduce You To… will be launched by guest speaker Blessing Ngobeni, who Field has a long relationship with and who ranks as one of South Africa’s most cutting and incisive socio political fine arts operators. The two are very different artists and personalities, but are linked by a shared history and a clear willingness to address complex socio political themes with art that shocks and delights on conceptual and visual levels alike.