A commentary on troubled lives

Review: Jim Roberts has created an installation of sculptures that speaks to childhood trauma.

April 09, 2000|By Jacqueline Jolles | Jacqueline Jolles,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jim Roberts is an artist who understands and accepts the daily challenges involved in his job as an art teacher at the Gateway School.

The alternative school, for children who aren't progressing in the traditional setting, provided the foundation for "American Landscape," Roberts' exhibit at Mill River Gallery in Ellicott City.

Gateway "is a school that provides an opportunity for these kids to be successful," said Roberts, noting that some of these students may have suffered from such problems as physical abuse, abandonment or drug abuse.

His exhibit is an installation, which means that all the pieces, in this case sculptures, revolve around a theme.

Roberts, a Westminster resident who has lived in Carroll County since 1970, is working toward his master's of fine arts degree at Towson University, and the Mill River Gallery exhibit represents his master's of fine arts thesis.

He became interested in art in the early 1990s when he went back to school to finish his undergraduate degree.

His first sculpture class was taught by Jim Paulson, who emphasized the use of abstract shapes. It seems Paulson's imprint has remained strong and continues to influence Roberts' artistic growth.

"I started making sculpture that dealt with surrealistic and abstract forms," Roberts said.

Surrealism often relates to dreams, and Roberts' intention was to create surrealistic imagery that stemmed from the subconscious. He describes how this process developed into his most recent work.

"My sculpture began moving from abstract surrealism to something more explainable. The making of sculpture now had a purpose," he said.

Roberts constructed his first crib before he began the works in the installation. The metal sculpture closely resembled an infant's crib. However, the kind of warmth and humanness associated with infants is absent.

What remained was a stark statement: a rusty, barred box shape supported by graceful, insectlike legs. Roberts considered this first crib a transitional component that provided the direction for his current work.

In the "American Landscape" installment, the crib is one of the essential portions of imagery and symbolism.

The artist theorizes that children who suffer trauma carry the effects throughout their lives.

"It starts as child abuse and may continue into adulthood, when it becomes abuse of the psyche or a human condition," he said.

Each of the 18 or so metal-barred cradles holds one or sometimes two clay babies. The babies are cold and stiff, not really resting; they are imprisoned, it seems, in their bluish-white painted beds. These appear to represent children who, even at birth, are doomed or fated for negative experiences.

"This installation relates to the environments that the kids [some Gateway students] have been brought up in," Roberts said.

He explained that "American Landscape" refers to his interpretation of the Hudson River School of painters, who painted an idealism of landscape that may not have existed.

Though some might disagree with Roberts' interpretation of this genre, it is an interesting conjecture, and the viewer may get a sense of a landscape of babies existing in their grim reality.

All of the crib/child combinations are illuminated with their own independent light sources -- a hanging black Ikea lamp. The Ikea tag is there to overturn stereotypes that abused children come only from the poor or disadvantaged class. Images appear of upper-class, two-parent households that abandon their children to child care while pursuing careers.

Most of the clay children are on their backs, but a few sit on the side of their cage-crib poised to escape. These babies lend an aspect of hope and drama to the rather bleak scene. In another piece, an infant rests on a stack of court papers, immovable, by which Roberts signifies the trauma of divorce.

While this installation seems to accomplish what it intends, it does not follow in the tradition of maintaining a fine arts premise, often absent in exhibits like this that deal with social issues.

Despite this absence, the show confronts important and powerful issues to be encountered by the viewer.

"American Landscape" will be on exhibit through April 30. Mill River Gallery is at 840 Oella Ave., Ellicott City. Information: 410- 465-6434.

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