In the Driver’s Seat: The Paintings of Paul Roberts

Exhibit / January 23, 2019

Object Name: Love/Action
Maker and Year: Paul Roberts, 1981 
Object Type: Paintings
Image Source: Paul Roberts
Description: (Richard McKenna)

In the tradition of the Photorealism and Hyperrealism movements that had evolved as offshoots of Pop Art, the paintings of musician, songwriter, and figurative painter Paul Roberts exist in the liminal space between perceived glamor and kitsch, taking their cues from the archetypes of genre fiction and the heightened realities of cinema and photography. The distinctive use of color and the exaggerated “realism” adopted by British artist Roberts, who first came to public attention in the 1970s, serve to emphasize the artificiality of his images. Their compositions echo the mannered poses and unnatural lighting of both renaissance art—especially the Neoclassicist pastiches that flourished in the 19th century—and of the movie publicity still, implying the dissonance and drama lurking beneath the superficially glossy surfaces of modern life.

Roberts, who trained at Newport, Cardiff and Goldsmiths Colleges of Art, was included in the Superhumanism art movement by the movement’s originator, author and curator Nicholas Treadwell, who exhibited Roberts’ work in his London gallery, claiming—somewhat disingenuously—that Superhumanism was “a movement, first and foremost, inspired by life, as opposed to inspired by art.” Roberts’ work was also featured on the covers of books and the records of Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, the band he fronted, and whose best-known song remains the 1977 single “Driver’s Seat.” The track was the first on the band’s 1981 Love/Action LP, with cover art featuring Roberts’ painting of the same name, a lush assemblage of the kind of iconography that would retrospectively come to be considered synonymous with the 1980s.

Roberts’ paintings embody a tension that makes them peculiarly of their time. As uncanny in their way as any British TV program or Public Information Film, his work focuses upon the privilege and attendant alienation of forty years of post-war prosperity. Sitting on the border between cliché and queasy ultra-realness—Baudrillard‘s “hyperreality,” where signifiers take on their own life—the affectless luster of his work is an implicit critique, underlining the strangeness and resounding vanity of the world we inhabit.

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