|Offerings to the goddesses -by Althea Greenan
My understanding of the work of Diane Roberts is informed by a close association with her over the past few years during which we wrangled with many ideas to do with our preoccupation with art. When I met her she ad seen a crucial turn in her work since leaving college. In answer to the doubt she had then experienced in the type of work championed by the art world and its virtual exclusion of women’s art, she took a fresh grip on her own work by giving it a central role in developing her self and social awareness as a woman.
Her work evolves just as her personal concerns do, bringing at times changes in imager and technique. To her most recent work, se has brought qualities akin to song or chant. By ties I mean that there have emerged certain images to which she is drawn as irresistibly as a chorus is to a refrain. They have become points of reference of landmarks for the exploration of her self. Whereas often the artist’s urge to paint something over and over is in order to pin down the various aspects of her subject’s attraction, this artist’s repetition is more in the spirit of incantation; it is the means by which she recalls something which happily resides in the subconscious up into the mind and literally brings it into view. But although the kind of image she evokes is at times as obvious as a shell of an axe, it nevertheless has an evasive quality of mystery for although it is conjured y feelings of recognition on her part, it remains a symbol whose meaning hovers beyond our ordinary range of understanding.
With each summoning to the canvas, she embellishes the symbol by using the decorative language developed in her earlier work which reached a peak in the elizabeth1seris currently touring the u.k. .Although she has changed her technique slightly and does not begin every canvas by printing on it first, she still succeeds in creating that particular depth that distinguishes her work, painting in layers of intricate pattern and bold images that never quite merge, especially in the later work. Here she deliberately allows room for ambiguity to enter into the appreciation of her images, echoing and encouraging us to acknowledge this quality in our perception of things. This embrace of the ambiguous in our nature was one of many personally important insights which she has gleaned from current feminist thinking. Another is the unreserved respect for intuitive knowledge which encouraged her to develop her work with symbols. Wary of the temptation to make symbols into a kind of shorthand, she’ll often expand their meaning by working on two paintings simultaneously to form diptychs that explore themes of opposites like passive/aggressive, night/day. Her also she can give rein to her skills as a painter, creating different emotions and moods that will carry the symbol of the painting at its heart. There is rests immutable, exerting the power that attracted her imagination to it in the first place.
Some of these images, such as the shell and the double-bladed axe, are familiar as symbols in art; this artist is well practised in adopting imagery from the past for her personal expression. This was cleverly achieved, for example, in the elizabeth1 series, but as she was coming to the end of this last, historically researched project, she realised she had become restless. Her painting risked at that point losing its personal relevance for her and she felt compelled to discover the means to extend its reach from the more subconscious sources of her creativity. Around this time she discovered the wok of women surrealists like Leonor Fini,Frida Kahlo and Leonra Carrington, and saw in them kindred spirits who also sought to express there identity by creating autobiographical work inspired by their subconscious.
What was also exciting for her was that they had been the first to successfully re-orient painting to serve the purposed of the female psyche.
For Diane, painting also has the special advantage of being independent of verbal definition, since she identifies strongly with the feminist philosophical idea that the structure of our language imposes severe limitation on the expression of female perceptions. Women’s view-points are further confused by the demands and consequent distortion of popular images of women. In an earlier series of paintings she was inspired to investigate the images of the ‘heroin’ 9meaning the historically prominent such as Joan of Arc and Queen Victoria) when she was intrigued by the varying film depictions of these women’s stories and then later alerted by the work of Marina Warner to the way popular imagery manipulated and sometimes ignores the truly heroic facts of their lives. This phase of her work became an important means of relating herself to other women in a more socially and politically aware sense. Through studying and re-working the images of these heroines herself, she came to understand how women’s lives are seen through a screen of acceptable images which create such shallow myths that women can hardly identify with them.
Diane has said herself that the elizabeth1 series was the culmination of a process in which she learned to identify with other women on a social and historical scale. The sense of a more magical spiritual bond did not come about until she had sent a fortnight on the island of Crete, experiencing the kind of aloneness that opens one up to the transcendent. It was there that she came face to face with a goddess-inspired past. Set in the Cretan landscape, was the physical evidence of a powerful matriarchal culture which had developed an equally sophisticated alliance with its natural environment. One particularly moving example of the beautiful balance of this relationship could be seen in the foundations that remain of palatial and sacred architecture. They were deliberately orientated towards these features of the surrounding terrain that echoed forms of the female body. The very fact that she could experience this relationship thousands of years later confirmed for her the immutability of the female spiritual bond with nature and the power of her expression. Especially as an artist she was I awe of the intelligence of a culture whose barest remnants could hold so much meaning.
Crete thus naturally seemed to be imbued with a certain ancient presence, enhanced for her by the intense quality of the Mediterranean light, and the radiant heat of land soothed by an ever present sea. Here was another relationship that survived the centuries, and here she was experiencing it as surely as any woman who lived within that ancient culture would, listening to the same sea, feeling the sun on her skin. This proved to be a kind of immersion in the infinite and through it she experienced a sensation of being which she knew she shared with those women who lived so long ago; it was through her senses that she had a sudden intuitive knowledge of who they were. There was also the feeling that perhaps something had been safely guarded all these centuries tat still lives within women today.
Diane has since found that there is something of this insight that can be re-enacted through the ritual of painting. This has coloured all the work she had done since her return from Crete. It was a visit she made without knowing what to expect, hoping to find as a stranger in a new place answers to questions that could not be seen clearly at home. To her delight she found that she wasn’t to remain a stranger for long, first finding in the Minoan art many ideas and methods close to her heart, and then experiencing in the landscape of Crete the comfort of a spiritual embrace. There she felt as if she’d transcended time, bringing back symbols which could not only connect her with a beautiful and powerful matriarchal culture, but also connected her with a strength within herself,. Within her paintings there is something of this journey for all of us.
|Althea Greenan 1989|