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
Smith is drawn to her wider arguments on politics and democracy. “She makes the point that democracy is a performative enterprise. We can’t presume that freedom is just there, we always have to make it for ourselves, and preserve it, and we really do that within public spaces, because it has to emerge from debate, communally.”
For him, public spaces are essential, and festivals are a good testing ground for the notion. “You can’t really celebrate in a nailed-down society. During the Thatcher era in Britain this idea emerged that anything public was lazy and leech-like, while anything private was enterprising and progressive. That’s not true, of course, but it took hold. We need a much broader synthesis.”
The humour in his work
It’s not just a matter of having a good time. Smith, who is quite funny in person, uses humour in his work. He is a fan of the stand-up routines of performers such as Jack Benny or Woody Allen – “their monologues become a wonderful, mad poetry”.
At the same time, he’s wary of relying too heavily on humour. “If it’s too funny, you can allow people not to engage, to treat it purely as a laugh. But you still need to undercut the self-seriousness of a lot of contemporary art.”
The bottom line is that he would like you to emerge just a little bit altered by an encounter with his work. One of his hand-lettered paintings is taken from a piece of journalism that struck him as being particularly great.
“The Guardian had their correspondents write outside their own disciplines, and the tennis correspondent at the time, Steve Bierley, who was covering the Roland Garros tournament in Paris, was sent to review Louise Bourgeois at the Pompidou.”
Bierley could have been flippant or glib about it, but instead he took on the challenge. Smith’s extensive recreation of the piece takes a quote from it as its title: This Artist is Deeply Dangerous.
“I thought it was incredible because it was as if you could see a basic shift in his understanding as he was writing it. I’m not quoting him directly now, but he concluded by saying something like: When you look at sport you see sport, but when you look at art you see yourself. That’s what we need to do.”
Art Makes Children Powerful is at the Butler Gallery and other Kilkenny venues from Saturday until August 18. The Butler Gallery exhibition runs until October 6, kilkennyarts.ie