A Review of Charlie Roberts: Juicy at Marlborough Contemporary, London
If you haven't yet heard of Kansas-born contemporary artist Charlie Roberts, you are in for a treat. Roberts' newest body of work Juicy is now on display at London's Marlborough Contemporary and showcases the artist at his very best. Composed of more than 200 unframed gouaches on paper - each measuring 59 by 84cm - Juicy appears to be about the story within the story, but is it as simple as that? A hybrid collective of figurative and abstract compositions, Juicy is a visual storyboard that details the inspirations behind Roberts’ work.
The unifying colour palette of fluorescent pinks, greens, yellows and purples makes this collection appear a coherent whole. Yet a closer look will reveal that the emphasis is most definitely on the individual. Not one of the 136 displayed works structurally, textually or symbolically resembles another. Some have Surrealist undertones, others reference Byzantine iconography. Portraits juxtapose phallic still-lives, and Picasso-inspired nudes nestle side by side with the most abstract of morphing shapes. Quite clearly each work is its own entity, and is as intellectually challenging as it is intriguing. Here lies the beauty of Roberts’ current installation.
This so-called beauty is born from Roberts’ ability to challenge social, economic and cultural preconceptions in one fell swoop. Whilst a quick glance at the installation might leave you feeling a little underwhelmed - his naïve almost child-like style makes you think anyone could do this - a closer look will make you think again. Every work, every symbol and every colour is strategically placed to unearth a deeper, more cerebral point. The pairs of glaring eyes seem to reference the ‘Big Brother’ society to which we have now become accustomed, while his UFOs raise unanswered questions about the possibility of life out there. Dali-esque figures pay tribute to the influence of surrealism while the dollar signs evoke the greatest works in Pop art history – I am here referring to Andy Warhol’s Dollar Signs of the 1960's – as well as the musical genre of hip-hop. Sensually overwhelming, your eyes dart from one to the next and back again. Roberts seems to know it all.
However, you don’t come away irritated by his know-it all references or his self-conscious reflections on the society we live in, because above all, they are fun to look at and they hang well on a wall. His decision to price each work at a manageable £1000 further contributes to their likeability. For the duration of this exhibition the gallery space has been transformed into a pop-up shop. The 136 works are organised in a formulaic grid-like structure that is at once reminiscent of a Connect 4 frame and, according to the curator, the work-station in Roberts’ Oslo studio. But, despite this rather harsh hang, the grid is in a constant state of flux. You can pick the work you like and walk out with it there and then. The gap in the grid is then replaced with another, and like that the installation moves, breathes and lives.
It is Roberts’ unprecious treatment of his oeuvre and his fearless approach that makes it so remarkable. Leaving the team at Marlborough Contemporary free to curate the exhibition as they wished, there is no idealized pre-ordained structure. A polymath who derives inspiration from both traditional and contemporary sources, Roberts’ work is unclassified. The artist plays with expectations and throws convention to the wind, embracing freedom in the most literal sense of the word. He is free to create and we are free to consume, but in acknowledging this symbiotic relationship, he engages us in a vibrant dialogue that is almost impossible to ignore. If you take my advice, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Written by Lucy Scovell, a contributor to Arteviste.