Restraining Jacket (Male) is one of a large group of paintings Roberts made during the first half of the 1990s based on objects associated with the medical system. The images are derived from photographs found in trade catalogues or taken by the artist herself. The subjects she chose for this group of paintings include such equipment as medical gadgetry (Oxygen & Anaesthetic Machines and High Performance Mammary Silicone Implant, 200cc, both 1992), horizontal supports for bodies (Obstetrics and Gynaecology Couch and Theatre Trolley, both 1992, Hospital Bed, Operating Table, Mortuary Slab, all 1993), various sorts of chairs (Assessment Chair, 1993, Dentist’s Chair, 19th Century, 1994 and Special Needs Pushchair, 1995) and hospital clothing (Hospital Gown (Whites), 1993, Restraining Coat 2, Female, 1995). Typically, the isolated objects are set centrally against a single colour ground, often with tonal vertical stripes, as in Restraining Jacket (Male). In this painting, a brilliant white garment trailing complex ribbons and tapes floats in a dark blue ground. The jacket is depicted as though it is lying on a flat surface, in contrast to Restraining Coat 2, Female, which appears to be inhabited by an invisible standing body. In this period of Roberts’s work, the human bodies for which all the medical accoutrements are designed are entirely absent or suggested only as volumes under fabric, as in Restraining Coat 2, Female, or under the drapes of a mortuary table, as in Mortuary Slab. When figures become visible from 1996 onwards, they are corpses with covered faces, eviscerated anatomical models, sleepers, death masks and more grisly murder victims. Roberts returned to the subject of medical restraint in 2001 with Restraining Coat with Stand, in which the jacket takes its form from a wooden stand placed on a tasselled mat.
Although they are realistically painted, the objects cast no shadows against the surrounding ground, resisting any reading of them as still lives. There is a subtle stylisation in Roberts’s manner of painting that suggests that the objects inhabit a symbolic realm. By isolating them from their background Roberts evokes the processes of clinical objectification necessary to the examination and treatment of sick or dead bodies. The background vertical stripes recall those used by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) in such paintings as The Seated Figure, 1961 (Tate T00459) or Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, where they suggest the folds of drapery. Single-colour, monotone backgrounds also feature frequently in Bacon’s work. Roberts’s paintings convey a strong sense of the uncanny, described by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in his famous essay The Uncanny (1925) as derived from the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of things. Freud discussed The Sandman (1816) by ETA Hoffmann (1776-1822), which features the doll Olympia who appears to be a real woman. Her unveiling as a fraud is a moment of deep trauma related to a collision of death with life or representation with reality. Despite their obvious status as representations, Roberts’s paintings inhabit this traumatic realm through their evocation of haunting absences and the physical and emotional distress usually associated with hospital experiences. They similarly recall another Freudian subject, that of fetishism, a notion that became prominent in the early 1990s in cultural theory and writing about art. In another essay, published in 1927, Freud suggested that fetishism – which involves conferring desire onto an inanimate object or separated body part – was the result of a psychological trauma, usually occurring during childhood.
Medical implements and their environment have played a prominent role in Roberts’s life. During a troubled childhood in North Wales, she often stayed in a former morgue which had been converted into a refuge. Her mother worked in a nursing home and she would spend her visits there drawing the equipment and furniture used by the staff and inmates. Later, during her MFA at Glasgow School of Art (1988-90), Roberts visited the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and drew hospital apparatus she found there. In Glasgow she encountered the work of the American artist Sarah Charlesworth (born 1947) at an exhibition entitled Reorienting East at Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre in 1990. Charlesworth’s photographic series Objects of Desire (1983-6) portrays isolated iconic images on monochrome grounds, showing a process of artistic fetishisation. Restraining Jacket (Male) also recalls the work of Lisa Milroy (born 1959) whose paintings in the mid to late 1980s featured everyday objects depicted against a neutral ground. Such paintings as Shoes, 1985 (Tate T06532) and Light Bulbs, 1988 (Tate T05217) show groups of ordinary things lined up on white backgrounds as though listed from a mail-order catalogue or classified for an inventory. In 1990 in Glasgow, in a project entitled Womanhouse, Roberts painted a list-like row of gynaecological instruments around the walls of a room in a work she retrospectively titled Treatment Room. The objects are loaded with a Surrealist sense of hidden meanings and emotional symbolism.
Home: Works by Julie Roberts 1993-2003, New York 2003, p.9, reproduced p.28 in colour.
Julie Roberts, exhibition catalogue, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow 1992.
Wall to Wall, exhibition catalogue, National Touring Exhibitions, South Bank Centre, London 1994, pp.64-7.