Austin artist Deborah Roberts' Contemporary show 'I'm' concerns the art of being seen
Austin artist's anticipated solo show runs at the Contemporary until August
Start with the eyes. You can’t escape them.
In Deborah Roberts’ current art, they mesmerize.
Often, like other facial features in her mixed-media pieces, they appear fractured. That’s because Roberts uses collage to combine the faces of Black youths. Those photographic images are applied to boldly painted torsos, limbs and apparel. Sometimes, she treats the hands of these youths in a similar manner, even adding a third appendage.
Collage, used in this selective and intentional way, can be extraordinarily effective.
The expressions on the young faces, and especially in the eyes, can be read in different ways: curiosity, innocence, pluck, anxiety, defensiveness, or any number of other split emotional states.
Roberts' career in Austin goes back to the mid-1980s. Now, in her first solo show of this scale and type, she is creating something like a new visual language.
“Deborah Roberts: I’m,” a show that was postponed from the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic and now runs through Aug. 15 under rigorous pandemic protocol at the Contemporary Austin Jones Center downtown, is everything her longtime admirers had hoped for and rightly anticipated.
Roberts, 58, first attracted attention in Austin because of her affable, detailed and adept drawings; she still draws capably and creatively. Yet in this show, the items of clothing on her youths are often rendered instead as flat geometric patterns that remind one of kids’ fashions from the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Roberts clips her startling photos from magazines and the internet. She once said that she is looking for images of youths who have not been touched by pop culture.
Yet pop culture and social critique are ever present, from grasped Tootsie Pops to a fist raised in solidarity with Black power to variations on “Pop Goes the Weasel” T-shirts.
I was especially drawn to the hand gestures, which seem say “stop,” “see” or “hold.”
New to me are her black backgrounds instead of white, and figures that slip out of the frame, as well as word play in austere pieces that read succinctly, “We ≥ They,” or phrases that celebrate Black names, as in “La’Condria is a noun” or “Aquanique is mild as milk,” finished in black, red or silver on a white field.
On the second or third circuit around the ground-floor galleries at the Jones Center, one also notices the smaller touches: real buttons attached to the paintings, flattering nail polish applied in an array of manners and attention to shoes or the lack of them.
And while we are on the subject of unexplained absence, given how much emphasis is afforded to eyes, the lack of them on one figure in “The Duty of Disobedience” is all the more powerful, disturbing. Also unforgettable in an enigmatic way are prints of a single child’s scrunched face, which Roberts executed during a Rauschenberg Foundation residency.
There’s a marvelous freshness to this show, which includes experiments for Roberts, such as the eye-grabbing exterior mural, six collages of a dancing Black boy titled “Little Man, Little Man,” and a multi-media installation that was not yet ready when I visited prior to the show’s opening (I will return).
From the evidence of the wall texts and recent literature, Roberts has thought long and carefully about her art, sometimes expressed in personal language, sometimes in the lingua franca of the contemporary art world.
The words mean less than do the images.
There is something undeniably sacred about “Deborah Roberts: I’m.” A reverence for humanity, for individuality, for presence.
I don’t mean that it is explicitly informed by organized religion or spirituality, although that, too, might be the case. But rather, in this space where I’ve seen shows by so many distinguished artists from around the world, I felt in the presence of an authentic and completely whole Austin artist whom the rest of the world is just beginning to know.
At home and abroad
Not long before this show opened, the New York Times, Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer and other media outlets celebrated Roberts’ well-deserved recent success. These articles focused not so much on her art, but rather on Roberts’ stratospheric career ascent, her perseverance in her artistic efforts and her compelling life story, including her parents’ blue-collar background.
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It did not go unnoticed that celebrities such as singer Beyoncé, director Ava DuVernay and former President Barack Obama had purchased her art.
Indeed, Roberts’ works can now be found in any number of prestigious public collections, too, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Austin's Blanton Museum of Art. She has been lionized in the pages of countless periodicals, such as the New Yorker, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ArtNews, Artsy, Artforum and Glasstire.
In the past years, dozens of galleries, museums and festivals have exhibited her work, including breakout shows at the Volta Art Fair, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, the National Portrait Gallery and the Studio Museum in Harlem. She has also earned numerous awards, grants, workshops, fellowships and residencies.
Yet make no mistake, Roberts, whose warmth and laughter can fill a room, has been cherished by Austinites for decades.
For instance, the first substantial story on Roberts and her art, described back then as Black Americana, appeared in the American-Statesman on Dec. 17, 1987: “A year ago, Deborah Roberts was frying doughnuts at a local supermarket — not an ideal job for an aspiring artist who had just graduated from the University of North Texas. But the 25-year-old East Austin native believes ‘success comes in cans — not can’ts.’”
Another informative story on Roberts appeared the next year, as she landed in a group show at the Carver Museum and prepared for a gig as a freelance illustrator for Chicago-based Ebony magazine. It also discussed her popular art summer camps.
In 1989, Roberts opened Not Just Art Gallery in West Lake Hills. In 1991, she was selected as No. 515 in President George H.W. Bush’s Point of Light Awards for her volunteer work with young artists.
By 1997, the Statesman ranked Roberts among the Top 100 artists in Austin. Another artist on the list, Michael Ray Charles, explored stereotypes about race, beauty and the Black body in a way that prefigures without predicting Roberts’ current output.
In 2006 — and again in 2017 — the Austin Critics Table named her artist of the year, one of the very few artists ever to be honored twice in such a way.
In the early 2010s, decades after she finished the last of her undergraduate courses, Roberts enrolled in the master of fine arts program at Syracuse University. This proved to be a turning point. She studied the works of Black writers such as Cornel West, especially on the subject of exploitive or distorted depictions of Black bodies.
Sometimes it takes outside voices to help change the conversation. Suggestions from a curator from the Menil Collection and a professor from Syracuse motivated her — in part to prove she could do it — to make more than 200 images of herself as a child, which became her “Little Debbie” series.
On her own, however, through the dint of abundant talent, hard work, sharp reasoning and limitless curiosity, she broke out beyond our city’s borders, still somewhat of a rarity among Austin artists.
Still, as recently as four years ago, Roberts worked day jobs to stay afloat. The New York Times reported that, back then, Roberts was selling works for $250 to $600; now, her pieces draw from $30,000 to $150,000. She is represented by Stephen Friedman in London and Susanne Vielmetter in Los Angeles.
More museums and galleries will follow suit. Admirers, especially children who might be inspired, will see her indelible images well into the future.
Those of us who have cherished her work for decades are ecstatic that the Contemporary Austin was the first museum to stage a solo show of this type and scale. After August, it will move to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Simultaneously, Roberts is planning a solo outing at Vielmetter Los Angeles for September.
While the pandemic delayed things, it gave Roberts time to perfect this show and to reflect on what it might mean, especially on the key subject of being seen.
“This virus has made us scared of other people,” Roberts told the New York Times. “Where we used to make eye contact and meet people, now we want to be in the shadows. We don’t want people to see us.
"Allowing people to be in my presence, to feel what I feel when people make comments about my hair or my body," she continued. "While I want to be in the chorus of Black women talking about Black womanhood, I also want to have my own solo voice.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'Deborah Roberts: I’m'
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Thursday and Sunday, noon to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, through Aug. 15
Where: The Contemporary Austin Jones Center, 700 Congress Ave.
Tickets: Up to $10
More information: Reserve tickets at thecontemporaryaustin.org/visit. Due to the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, tickets are released only four weeks at a time on Monday.
Also showing upstairs: “Torbjørn Rødland: Bible Eye”