Lorne Jackson finds the artist ‘Bob and Roberta Smith’ is a man with a burning message about the frightening times we live in.
On hearing the names Bob and Roberta Smith, it’s unlikely that you will immediate imagine something avant-garde.
There must be a Mr and Mrs B & R in every town and city across the nation, and their everyday life probably isn’t that remarkable.
But not the Bob and Roberta Smith I’m chatting to in Walsall. This Bob and Roberta are no couple; they – or rather it – is one man.
Bob and Roberta Smith, the funky artist. And Bob – as I’m going to call him from now on, to prevent further confusion – has made a name for himself with a series of challenging and witty works.
The artist in residence at The New Art Gallery Walsall since 2009, we meet to discuss his two latest projects for the town.
First, he has installed one of his own pieces, The Bonfire, on the top floor of the gallery.
The spectacular construction was originally shown as part of an exhibition in Amsterdam in 2009, where artists from round the world were invited to respond to the question, “What is normal?”
Bob came up with The Bonfire, which consists of a number of his previous works, along with floorboards and placards painted with fragments of overheard conversations, or punchy phrases.
Bob’s other Walsall project is an exhibition he has curated, entitled The Life of the Mind: Love, Sorrow and Obsession. Both are exciting concepts, though before discussing either of them, one pertinent question must be dealt with first.
What’s with the bonkers name, Bob?
“I suppose it’s just a wacky name,” he chuckles. “It really started because I was doing work with my sister at one stage, who was also an artist.
“But she’s now decided that art is elitist, and she’s retrained as a group psychotherapist, leaving me with the name.”
What inspired Bob to build The Bonfire?
“When I was a kid I watched the documentary series, The World At War. And there was this graphic at the beginning, when the title of the show would burst into flames. The series was about the Second World War, so obviously that was a reference to Kristallnacht, book burning and the 1930s.
“It was a powerful image of something that I find very frightening. Which is culture and creativity being destroyed. I’m terrified of ideas and opportunities going up in flames.”
Britain in the 21st century certainly isn’t under fascist occupation. However, Bob does see a link between coalition cuts to the arts sector and Nazi book burning.
“I think it might be a bit over the top to see the Government’s cuts as a fascist sort of thing. But it is frightening what the Government is doing to culture and education.
"And although they’re not setting light to things that have already been made, by making such drastic cuts, they are stopping things being made in the first place. I don’t want to overamplify that point, but it does feed into this image I have of creativity going up in flames.”
The Bonfire is certainly a grouchy work. The slogans and phrases scrawled on the boards are contentious, to say the least.
One missive snarls that “Gordon Brown looks like a pig.” Another snipes, “Peter Hain is a sh*t.”
Is the artist courting controversy?
“The Bonfire is a mixture of different things, done over the past few years. The Gordon Brown and Peter Hain signs were specific pieces done when the Iraq War was in full spate.”
The title of the show is a quotation from Barton Fink, an early Coen Brothers movie that blends comedy and horror.
Bob’s direct inspiration for the exhibition had more to do with horror than comedy – the horror at the heart of the sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein’s family life. Bob was struck by a bronze sculpture – owned by the Walsall Gallery – that Epstein made of his 15-year-old daughter.
Esther later committed suicide, after her brother, Theodore Garman, had also taken his own life.
“In this sculpture, she looks pissed off,” says Bob. “She’s got a really angry face, basically. An uncompromising face. Like she is attempting to fend off the artist’s gaze – the gaze of her father.
“Epstein had this incredible ability to model heads, but in this piece Esther is looking at him with suspicion, really. Making me think that she’s sort of resisting, looking for some sort of liberation. So, in the exhibition I’ve chosen predominantly women artists, who question the male dominance of everything.”
The exhibition includes the work of many prominent female artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick and Tracey Emin.
But the most striking works included are by a man. They are the paintings of Epstein’s son, Theodore, who made them when he was suffering from acute mental illness.
His early works had the vibrant, flowing colours of Van Gogh. But the later pieces, created near the end of his short life, are bleak smudges and smears of brown.
“Getting involved with the Epstein archive, which is held in Walsall, has dramatically influenced my own work,” says Bob. “I’ve even made a sculpture of Theodore. Jacob Epstein obviously loved his daughter, Esther. But he found Theo quite difficult to handle, because of his numerous problems. He was developing what we would now describe as schizophrenia.
“So Jacob never made a sculpture of Theo. That’s why I decided to make one myself. To sort of fill in this gap in Epstein’s work. My finished piece was really mad and gawky, but it does actually look like Theo.It made me realise I want to do more three dimensional sculptural work. Working in Walsall really has been very inspirational.”
* The Life of the Mind: Love, Sorrow and Obsession, curated by Bob and Roberta Smith is at the New Art Gallery Walsall until March 20. The Bonfire will be showing at the gallery until June 5. Tel: 01922 654400 or www.thenewartgallerywalsall.org.uk for details.