Art in the A.M.

Naughton Gallery and Town Square café team up for a morning of coffee, conversation and soul-baring comic strips in the first of a stimulating new talk series

Given that it’s the same morning the world has woken up to – for many - the unsettling result of last week’s EU referendum, I can’t help but feel the occasional pang of guilt at not always being able to afford my full attention to the wit and quiet confidence of Keiler Roberts, as she answers a succession of questions from the modest group who have come to hear her speak.

Nestled in an alcove at the back of Town Square, the audience of around seventeen or so are able to huddle fairly easily around the American comic-book artist. Her Powdered Milk exhibition forms the opening show in the programme offered by the new team at the Naughton Gallery, and her thoughts, shared over coffee and cake (not Boris Johnson’s 'dense and glutinous' kind, some may be glad to know), provide the first material for the gallery’s new Art in the A.M. initiative.

In partnership with the newly-opened Town Square café on Botanic Avenue, Art in the A.M. is the first in a free series of monthly discussions which will see artists and other speakers in conversation with the Naughton’s recently-appointed curator, Ben Crothers, as well as new Gallery & Exhibitions Assistant, Rachel Brown, and it’s hoped a healthy contingent of early risers and art lovers will regularly make it along to the event.

One of its aims is to create more of a dialogue between the wider public and the artwork exhibited in the Naughton, which can sometimes be overlooked or missed altogether because of its location; slightly tucked away as it is in the Queen’s Lanyon Building, above the university‘s Welcome Centre.

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Perhaps surprisingly for an exhibition like this, Powdered Milk begins with a basic question on the subject of writing, rather than illustration, with an image of Roberts crouched over a desk with pencil and paper. 'I started writing a story about my childhood', she begins, before the obstacles of memory get in the way and a number of difficulties with form complicate matters further.

One of the first images in this opening strip (there are 15 volumes in total) provides an early example of her keen observational humour, when her mock-romanticised recollections of early youth 'I remember a world of sensations, quietly absorbed'  frame an illustration of her teenage self, musing 'wiry, oily hair my hands are coated [sic]'.

The next panel reads, 'the illusion of sweet childhood contentment overpowers my aesthetic sensibility [sic]', as she flicks through old polaroids and finds herself struck with small moments of realisation like, 'Oh – whatever happened to that old, ugly green desk? I wish I had it now'.

The kind of frankness you see in these earliest of volumes, as a young Roberts struggles with who she is, as well as how best to put across her autobiographical narrative, is something that’s consistent all the way throughout Powdered MilkEven though her story makes some considerable chronological jumps – from adolescence to young adulthood, and then quickly to motherhood, before the series starts to err from realism and takes a more fantastical turn – this sense of emotional honesty and vulnerability is something that leaps out and grabs the viewer more than almost anything else in the work displayed.

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Even in documenting her mental health (Roberts has lived with bipolar disorder throughout her adult life) and some of the humiliating trials involved in parenting, she’s startlingly up-front and open. In the exhibition’s accompanying pamphlet, which contains a short interview with the artist, she confesses: 'I hesitated to write about having bipolar disorder – thinking about future students and employers knowing about it [Roberts also teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago]. I haven’t regretted that because it’s a huge part of my life, and I couldn’t be very honest if I didn’t include it.'

Honesty, then, by her own account, is one of the key forces at work in her comic-book art, and this becomes plain to see at the Thursday-night exhibition launch. 'Plus, I feel like maybe I’ll play a little part in reducing the stigma. Then again, I might make it much worse, if people generalise, based on me.'

It’s in these exchanges where you really see the level of care and consideration that goes into the renderings of her – unquestionably close-to-home - subjects, as she reveals discussing her storylines with husband, Scott, and daughter, Xia, as well as her representations of them.

With all this focus on her comic insight and observational skill – part of which she puts down to contemporary influences like Louis C.K., Larry David, and Lena Dunham - it can be easy to bypass Roberts’ skill as an illustrator. When you’re up close with her, you can really grasp her ability to capture the defining features and expressions of herself and those close to her with a minimal number of strokes.

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Comic-book artists, especially those with a simple, monochromatic style such as Roberts', can sometimes be overlooked critically when it comes to their craft and general draughtsmanship. As someone who struggled to find her voice and place within the art world, having started her career as a portrait painter before arriving at her current medium, this may well be something that smarts with Roberts. And indeed it's a recurring theme in her narrative episodes.

So, when talk turns at breakfast to the idea of being the subject of one of Keiler’s comics – a question which she puts forward in her typically straight, matter-of-fact style - most faces in the room drop, and many avert glances while a few others edge into a cautious smile. One brave attendee offers, 'Only if you give me superpowers'.

It’s excellent to see a comic book artist enjoy this kind of exposure in Belfast. As the Naughton has tended to house more traditional portrait art from Northern Ireland, this refreshing change of direction is likely to resonate more with the younger audience among the Queen’s student body, without alienating the gallery’s regulars who will find richness and subtlety in Roberts’ narrative, as well as substance in the exhibition’s themes of motherhood, mental health, social convention and society’s expectations of women.

It’s also heartening to see the platform given in this show (as well as a number of upcoming ones) to female, often unapologetically feminist artists, in a gallery where well-known local male painters often used to dominate the bill.

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This isn’t, of course, to suggest the Naughton's new direction is somehow adversarial, or that it’s looking to make any patent or overbearing political statements. And, similarly, Roberts’ work isn’t some kind of one-dimensional propaganda, or protest art for the feminist cause in comic book form – far from it. Her experiences of growing up as a girl and then as a young woman in the United States – before having her own baby daughter – are quite clearly inseparable from her work and the stories she wants to tell in her drawings. These personal experiences rightly take their place in shaping the illustrations’ engaging and energetic subject matter, and quite often provide a basis for some of the funny and incisive social commentary her comic strips deliver with regular accuracy.

As the first Art in the A.M. session winds up to a close at around 10.30 (it usually lasts for an hour or thereabouts), there’s a strange sense of removal from the news that’s shaking Britain, Ireland and a number of other nations worldwide. Keiler Roberts proves herself to be as wry, endearing and, above all, authentic in conversation as she is in her artwork, which she seems to pour so much of herself into personally.

And despite the overhanging shadow of this particular morning's headlines, the exhibition marks a strong start for the Naughton Gallery's new public initiative, registering as one of its most rich and engaging for a broad audience in a long time.

The next Art in the A.M. session will see Ben Crothers in conversation with comic artist and Teesside University lecturer Fionnuala Doran from 9.30am on Friday, July 29. Powdered Milk runs at the Naughton Gallery until August 7. Powdered Milk is available to purchase as a book here.