Julie Roberts creates paintings with a strong critical bite and intellectual rigour. Her main theme is the human, particularly female, body and the way that it is subjected to institutional, familial, sexual and natural constraints and injuries.
Her works from the early 1990s suggested the body through objects such as operating tables, mortuary slabs, gynaecological couches and restraining jackets. These were painted with a meticulous, heightened attention to detail. Roberts emphasised internal shadows and folds almost as if she wanted to rub our noses in their materiality and make us physically aware of what control and constraint feel like.
Roberts’s fascination with the body and with hospitals was shared by a number of artists in Scotland and elsewhere, inspired by the writings of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and a growing interest in the history of the early twentieth-century art movements Dada and Surrealism. The influence of the work of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the ‘father of psychoanalysis’, was crucial and in 1996 Roberts made his desk and study the subjects of several paintings. This heralded a shift in her work towards a more historical approach to her subject matter – an approach sparked by a year in Rome and its overwhelming sense of the past.
Roberts began to paint things that showed the way earlier generations had treated the themes of sex and death. In 1999 she reprised the eighteenth-century French painter Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting The Death of Marat (1793), beginning a series of works dealing with murder. Roberts painted and drew the victims of Jack the Ripper with an almost loving attention to their bodies, clothes and even their wounds. Even if these women had been savagely butchered, their images would now be treated with tenderness.
Recent paintings have concentrated on orphaned or abandoned children. They are painted in a highly stylised manner with details emphasised as if they were ornaments. One almost feels that Roberts were trying to blot out the pain and solitude of the children by the repetitive action of her paintbrush.