Fiona Roberts’s deeply saturated yet aqueous paintings feature quiet studies of figures and have a dream like sensibility. Layers of colour and shadow drift, and overlap creating an atmospheric sfumato. The accidental quality of ink and water on paper allow an intimacy and abstraction to emerge in each unique picture. At the centre of these ephemeral yet painterly places are images of women and girls, symbolising the liminality of the feminine experience in contemporary society.
To make these captivating images, Roberts begins with the composition, cropping and rearranging the elements, creating contrasts between the shadow and light with each figure and enigmatic space. The use of limited hues and muted colours lends an understated yet evocative gravity to each picture. The subjects are mysterious composites, inspired in part by the artist’s daughter and friends, who through the alchemic process of making are transformed in newly symbolic protagonists.
Roberts works primarily with ink and the unpredictable quality of this medium means each picture evolves as if by chance, an experiment of the mixing of the pigment with water or bleach. A flow of liquid marks the paper, creating a space that appears to exist between an elemental plane of light, water and time. “Using ink makes for imperfect paintings that are in stark contrast to the hyper-perfect images we are surrounded by today.” As well Roberts’s choice of paper rather than the more traditional canvas has not only material importance but symbolic significance: “The use of paper lends something else to the paintings. Paper is less robust than canvas and can be seen to have a vulnerability of its own.”
The ephemeral sensibility of these works is alluring yet at the core of this work is an evocation of the often marginalised and unseen experience of women and girls in contemporary society. The artist notes she is interested in the luminosity of Kaye Donachie’s painting and Marlene Dumas’ pictures of the unseen as well as the studies of ambiguity seen in the work of Francesca Woodman, particularly the suggestion of “unease, discomfort and strangeness.” It is this unsettling quality that Roberts evokes, allowing us to come to terms with the gravity of her subject matter.
As far as the ghostly environment and this feeling of disquiet, the artist notes: “The atmosphere is part of looking back to a past which has gone and cannot be changed. There is also the suggestion of vulnerability, of feelings of insubstantiality, of not being grounded or safe.” As such, the pictures suggest the experience of femininity as something liminal and invisible, too often overshadowed by societal expectations and roles that feel rigid and unbending. The comparison between old sepia photographs and Roberts has been made, and the artist finds this fitting noting an intense interest in contemporary society but too an ongoing engagement in the past, of old memories, and experience. Through this foggy lens we see memory, spectral beauty and a quiet ambiguity which the artist hopes will act as an open door for the viewer to see her own story within.
Rosa JH Berland