Menu Close

Discussion from September Friends’ Night – Liz Coats on Margaret Roberts

Transcript from Liz Coats discussion of Margaret Roberts, ‘Reception (Jean Belette’s Studio)’ documentation 2003 for September Friends’ Night, Drill Hall Gallery (online), 24 September 2021, 5.30 pm.

I look at this framed photo image suspended on the wall of my sitting area every day. It was made by Margaret Roberts, with whom I have enjoyed animated discussion around the limits of our tolerance with art world politics over many years of friendship.  I should say that our differences and honest respect allows for this, since she often comments on how she doesn’t understand painting, which is my long-term practice.

We first met in the 1980s after a skirmish over womens’ art in the theatre of the AGNSW, when she engaged with me privately. I had presented a talk on my work, including a brief mention of Buddhism, and was fiercely attacked by women in the audience. It seems that Buddhism was then perceived as some sort of religion. A topic around the nature of mind that I knew, interested a number of women privately, but not to be mentioned in public.

This was the beginning of our friendship. Marg knows that I’m interested in working through symmetry with asymmetry in colour formations that offer a kind of recognition that we more often take for granted in our surroundings. I admire Marg’s approach to visual invention – her sharp intellect and spatial sensitivity that turns sophisticated concepts into easily accessible artworks.

I’m not sure if Marg would like me discussing her work in public, but I will say a few words. She is a sculptor, performer and installation person – a description that barely describes her art making activities – she is also a prolific writer and a great teacher. Marg has a passion for depicting and displacing the nature of volume.

Her work titled : ‘Reception (Jean Bellette’s Studio), documentation, is the eighth image in a set of digital photos, made while staying alone in the Haefliger cottage, Hill End residency, in 2008. I received this framed work as a gift in exchange for a work of mine.

The image purports to record a spatial arrangement of three chairs around a circular table. The location is historic. This room was once the studio of artist, Jean Bellette.

Marg has a way of perceiving spatial ambiguity in her surrounds. Details that one might sense with a glance in a private moment, then forgotten.

On looking at this digital photo print, contained within a white-gessoed box frame, there appears a set of chairs around a table. A commonplace scene, but one that is strangely indeterminate. The soft interior light is slightly unfocussed and here, seen through glass with my photo.

The circular arrangement of furniture indicates that there is spatial volume, while Incidental light on portions of surface of the old, varnished wood, seem to merge with the stained plaster wall behind.

Then, a triangle of white light, seemingly from nowhere, cuts into the wooden floor, disrupting the volume of the table set, as if it might slip forward in the frame.

This dimensionally flat photo record appears to contradict any logical depiction of those functional shapes positioned within a white cube, while we recognise the table is just a table, as are the chairs, just three chairs.

To my way of understanding, in making this record of an historic, lived interior in her present time, Marg has also seen a geometry of shapes that are both volumetric and capable of compression into the spatial reality of a two-dimensional photograph.

This is something that painters began to see in early photography, when artists realised how photography was compacting physical volume, and discounting traditional systems of perspective.

In cubist painting, for instance, without an applied perspective, objects could be depicted from several angles, occupying the centre of a painting, while surfaces tilt in favour of the subject detail and backgrounds slip out of the frame.

Marg’s image is not a sharp photo print; probably made with a hand-held camera, while she has brought to life the ephemeral nature of the scene with its interior light, and without rearrangement. She also knows well how spatial geometry can reshape a whole image.

There are no persons here, while that curiously perceivable atmospheric suggests a kind of living continuity.       Therein lies the art in perception.

– Liz Coats

Liz Coats is an abstract painter who has exhibited in solo and group shows since the mid-1970s. Liz’s paintings are held in numerous public and private collections, including the Australian National Gallery, Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Victoria, and the Auckland City Art Gallery.

​Liz’s studio is at Strathnairn Arts in Canberra. Her commercial gallery is Utopia Art Sydney. You can see her work here

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.