home page link
2002 07 10 Sculpture Threaded Chronicles Dale Roberts upsidedown ship ribbing shape with white net hanging to the ground
2002 07 10 Sculpture Threaded Chronicles Dale Roberts detail glass float shaped netting sculpture
2002 07 10 Sculpture Threaded Chronicles Dale Roberts installation image east wall gold semi circle net sculpture and white funnel net sculpture
2002 07 10 Sculpture Threaded Chronicles Dale Roberts installation image gold net mounted on east wall three horizontally mounted nets in the background in south wall
2002 07 10 Sculpture Threaded Chronicles Dale Roberts detail gold net and gold weights
2002 07 10 Sculpture Threaded Chronicles Dale Roberts three net sculptures mounted on wall horizontally in parallel

Dale Roberts - Threaded Chronicles
July 10 2002

2002 07 10 Sculpture Threaded Chronicles Dale Roberts detail gold net and gold weights

Songs of Renewal

Dale Roberts' sculptural creations are like the working-songs of maritime communities. By this I mean that they are built and layered of compounded rhythms and tightly-woven harmonies, wrought of complex yet meticulously ordered repetitions. The repeating patterns, themes and motifs of the larger sculptures expand from small-scale origins in traditional woven or crocheted textiles. These small textile units are incorporated into ceiling-to-floor, free-hanging sculptural works, divorced - as much by sheer size and narrative sweep as by whimsy - from the historic materials' original quotidian functions. Like the traditional "nonsense" lyrics of the driving melodies of men and women at work in marine industries (of net-making, wool-carding, rope-making or ship-building), the meticulous articulation Roberts gives to these sculptural forms renders greater patterns out of tiny, painstakingly-crafted components. These are married to found objects like driftwood, or to carefully curated objects like marine "bobbers," boat bumpers, or lead weights. Great drapes of white netting depend from wood frames, shaped like hoops or forms reminiscent of the ribs of ships' hulls, in pieces like Testing the Waters or Portage. Smaller wall-mounted sculptures are constructed from layered paper artifacts (like turn-of-the-century maps), traditional textiles, iron oxides, molten lead, encaustic, pigments and shellac - among many other potential materials found at shipyards or on shorelines.

Musical terms like "tempo," "fortissimo," "diminuendo" and "cadences" best describe the swelling volumes, diminishing forms, "figures," or "movements" of the larger works. Roberts' volumes and forms are organic, not only in their structural patterns and organisation but also in their way of "growing." The works exist beyond the three dimensions, incorporating the element of Time into their designs, one consisting of rope fragments scavenged from coastlines over the period of a year, and another built of 360 crocheted-loop circuits, like the yearly rings of a tree. Other works acquire weathered finishes, patinas or discolorations over time and exposure to natural elements. To this end, Roberts "launches" some of the wall sculptures as if they were ships. After being launched, they typically spend a day or so "moored" in the ocean, picking up flotsam, jetsam and other aquatic debris - as well as the occasional marine life form. The smaller wall-pieces are constructed and collaged composite works. Suggestive of topographical vistas, they include antique nautical maps as grounds. The maps work as texts and relate information on yet another level. Like the stories told by men and women labouring at sea, they tell a tale - a saga of migration and survival, relating the values and themes of the struggle to prosper amid the most challenging of wildernesses. The traditional technologies and crafts, the collected survival acumen of maritime communities from time immemorial, the practiced techniques of fishers, voyagers and settlers, can be traced in the material substance and abstract forms of these works. Resurrected for an artistic purpose, the skills and tools applied by Roberts in this homage to a childhood spent in Newfoundland represent the cultural survivals of pre-technological coastal communities. The works function as physical poetry - odes to antique industries' traditional repertoires, equipment, practical wisdom and elegant craft.

Through their signifiers and themes, Roberts' layered texts convey an Old World experience of textiles, shapes and even smells. Traditional fibres and materials like oakum and tarred rope are redolent of dockyards and harbours. But it was these functional forms' expression in the New World that informed and endowed Roberts' early perceptions. He learned his affinity for fishers' and trappers' materials in childhood, at his father's knee, among the tenacious communities who lived off the fertility of Newfoundland's woodlands or ocean. The wall piece titled Conception portrays an earthy understanding of the reliance on the providence and fecundity of the earth and its oceans. Named for the antique tidal map of Conception Bay, which provides the main surface and ground for the piece, this work is rent by a womb-like opening or tear in the ocean floor. It is stained red with ochre and other earthy pigments, suggesting uterine blood or the volcanic birth of new terrain beneath the sea. Conception was "launched" in the sea after completion and spent some time immersed beneath the waves; it has collected a veil, or "caul," of seaweed, sand and other organic debris. Its colours have weathered and mineralised from the salt, causing the piece to broadcast an aura of inexhaustible fertility and great age, like a fetish or relic retrieved from some ancient, sunken vessel.

The true sense of poetry or prose springs from the tensions and stresses, contrasts and correspondences among the words of the text. Roberts' works "catch" sense and meaning within their layered draperies, netting and twine. Nautical weights or floats distort the weft and weave of the nets; their weight pulls the fabrics down into gravity's embrace in some instances, as with Testing the Waters, while their bulk stretches the netting into suggestive shapes in others, such as Cottel's Cove Synet. Hemp, twine and oakum are used as stuffing in some pieces, filling huge "corked" or tubular-woven forms and giving them a mysterious, subtextual inner life. Quoiled Boundary is one that seems particularly animate, informed with wilful content, as if it may suddenly come alive, its serpentine bulk writhing across the gallery floor. Other pieces are more evocative of herring nets; one glitters with gold threads, as if setting a trap for sunlight. Nostalgia plays a part in the shapes and patterns thus formed. Tactile and olfactory maritime locators, subtly referenced in each piece, speak to half-forgotten aesthetic ideals, memories, and sensory fascinations. The sculptures are allusive, merely suggesting the original objects' industrial or historic functions, courting their memory with potent evocations and clues. Designed so as to have a palpable presence in the gallery space, the smells worked into the sculptures' textiles (or which issue from the accretions of seaweed and desiccated sea life in the "launched" pieces) are a striking feature of the installation's presentation.

I was raised on a sailboat and found that sensory memories of nautical life (black-tarred dock pilings, oiled canvas, hemp, wet rope, aromatic kelp beds and mud flats) were powerfully triggered for me. This is a romantic body of work with strong narrative elements. It lulls and hypnotises the viewer with vaguely familiar scents and shapes, with those most delicate promptings and cues, then ambushes the senses from several directions at once. In a traditional working song, this revelatory moment would mark the song's crescendo, arrived at when a task of epic proportions was nearing completion. In terms of traditional storytelling, the dramatic crisis would bring resolution, an epiphany launching the audience into visceral and profound reveries. This exhibition speaks to all of us who, at the turn of the millennium, recall immigrant ancestors or sea-faring parents. Roberts has revived age-old industrial arts in an artistic re-evaluation of maritime culture, science and craft. Freed of functionality, what is (and was always) beautiful about these traditional materials, objects and icons need not be discarded; Dale Roberts has recruited them for an authentic narrative role, providing the expressive vocabulary for a seasoned and provocative voice.

Yvonne Owens, June 2002