Sign us up: the world of Bob and Roberta
The visual art of Bob and Roberta Smith – aka Patrick Brill – is political, humorous and all about empowering the spectator
Art Soapbox by Bob and Roberta Smith
Bob and Roberta Smith: ‘When I first visited Kilkenny I was struck by all the shop signs, and I thought it seemed almost quaint and old-fashioned, all that fine sign writing. Very quickly I realised that it’s not sort of left over, they’ve consciously preserved it, which is brilliant’
Sometimes Bob and Roberta Smith – one artist despite the dual identity – seems in danger of talking himself out of a job. What he does is all about empowering or enabling the spectator, so that the spectator becomes the practitioner. The title quote of John Rogers’s film on Smith, Make Your Own Damn Art, neatly sums up his message.
As the headline visual artist in this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival, under the banner Art Makes Children Powerful, he has established a kind of pop-up art school where you can engage in practical classes addressing such topics as expression and tonality, or colour and edge.
That’s not all. You can also dress up as Hannah Arendt, the writer and theorist with whom he feels a deep affinity, in the Robing Room in the grounds of the former Bishop’s Palace, and track the paths of bees in the garden outside, or you can hold forth from the Art Soap Box in Rothe House.
For Smith, audience participation is central, and participation is about the audience taking charge, culturally and, ultimately, politically, for his art connects inextricably with political issues – for example, in his vociferous opposition to the proposed removal of art from the GCSE core curriculum in England. His open letter to British education secretary Michael Gove is on show in Kilkenny.
His real signature works, however, are probably his bright, brash and often very large sign paintings, featuring his own or quoted snatches of various texts, including mottos and questions as well as much longer pieces, casually hand-lettered on scraps of wood, cardboard or fabric.
‘My father could draw like Holbein’
Smith was born in London in 1963. His given Christian name is Patrick and his surname is Brill. “Both my parents were from working-class backgrounds,” he says.
His father’s family sold fruit and vegetables, his mother was a seamstress. “But they were both great at drawing – my father could draw like Holbein – and that ability propelled them into another world, really, allowing them to study art.”
His father, the landscape painter Fred Brill, taught at Chelsea School of Art and became principal there in 1965.
Smith himself studied at Reading and went on to complete an MFA at Goldsmiths College in 1993. Goldsmiths was the cradle of the Young British Artists, so you could say that Smith was in the right place at the right time. But he relates a little uneasily to the YBAs and seems especially set against the materialist ethos that came to the fore in the art world of the time.