Absorbing Encounters – paintings by Gerda Roper

To encounter is to come upon or meet with something unexpected, and so encounters are at the heart of viewing a work by Gerda Roper. Often autobiographical and always universal, Roper's images explore realities of the female experience – domestic, psychological, imaginative, sensual and maternal. 

Roper constructs narratives of being woman; of mother, of lover, of friend, interested observer, or of family situations. These narratives are often fragmentary, glimpses of moments held in time, encounters set in shifting spaces and perceptions. 

The works are carefully wrought and crafted. They are poetic, intricate, decorative, domestic in scale, subject and content, and they utilise whimsy and humour as a subtle guide into other worlds and experiences. They bring together internal and external realities, dreams and fantasies, the observed and the imagined.

Gerda Roper, Hide and Seek, 1989, 60cm x 60cmGerda Roper's recent work includes a series of drawings and paintings entitled Hide and Seek. Made over a period of thirty years these paintings emerged from drawings about children's games. Roper describes, "the enduring thrill of playing Hide and Seek. I played it as a child in large houses in the dark, I played it with my child and I see it is still being played with the same fearful abandon". She remembers that her son used to hide and close his eyes, and say "I am not there", as if by not seeing he could not be seen.

The game of Hide and Seek has a long history and may have originated in the need for children to learn to develop skills of escape from enemies – to hide, or to seek for food or to seek out hidden enemies. Child psychologists emphasis the need for children to go out by themselves and explore, to gain autonomy and confidence in their independence, but remind us that no sooner have children felt the joy and thrill of exploration than they get lonely and seek reassurance. Therefore the child both hides and seeks. The finding and reuniting part of the game reassures the child that people in relationships can separate and yet come back together again, and the dance of separation and reunification indicates that separations can be temporary and are therefore safe. Recent research by Moll and Khalulyan (2016) considers the excitement of escaping someone's glance and thus making oneself invisible, as indicating an idea in the child's mind that 'I can see you only if you can see me' and thus unless two people make eye contact it is impossible for the one to see the other, because children insist on mutual eye contact for recognition.

One of the most powerful stories of Hide and Seek is The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, in which the Pevensie children are evacuated from London during the Second World War, to the country house of Professor Digory Kirke where the strict housekeeper Mrs Macready explains that he is unaccustomed to having children around him. During a game of Hide and Seek, Lucy, one of the children, hides in a wardrobe which opens up into the fantasy world of Narnia. Her experiences in Narnia enable her to overcome the trauma of being uprooted from her home amidst the bombing of London. Lucy's decision to hide in the wardrobe results in fantasy journeys and challenges involving seeking and reuniting.

In the painting by Gerda Roper entitled Hide and Seek, 1989, the boy child attempts to conceal himself beneath a red chair that is set under a glass table in the centre of which stands a vase of flowers. The adult female figure positioned in the top quarter of the painting is bent over looking for, rather than at, the child. The boy is looking away from the woman – who may or may not be his mother but certainly appears to be a relative, out towards the left of the image possibly towards someone else, or perhaps to a place beyond the viewer. The red chair is covered in rich patterned fabric and illuminates part of the boy beneath. The woman wears a yellow patterned dress which permeates into the patterned floor lighting the space between her and the child and linking them together. The floor and the internal spaces of the room appear liquid and water like, permeable and translucent like blue moonlight, but the painting is still and held in its own moment. Writing about this series Gerda Roper says, "in some of them I am trying to get that moment when you have to hold your breath, because breathing will give you away". She also recalls, "the sneaking back to base, the muffled sounds, and that the strangeness of objects in a half light and in the dark, make the negotiation of space perilous". In the painting, the viewer can see both figures and the woman can see the child. The child is alone and believes himself to be invisible because he is not in eye contact with the woman, however he may be seeing someone beyond the painting. The flowers in the vase look like white lilies possibly symbolising purity, commitment and rebirth, but the leaves cascade down over the side of the pot suggesting a more aquatic flora that points our eye towards the child beneath the table. The pot and the glass table together form a larger spherical shape that is beguiling but undefined suggesting that the child may be looking into a glass ball, to the future and away from the female figure.

 Gerda Roper, Hide and Seek in the quiet of the day, 2019, 1m x 1mIn the painting Hide and Seek in the Quiet of the Day, 2020, a young girl with long hair in two plaits wearing a yellow dress with orange patterning appears to be crawling across a blue and white geometrically patterned floor in order to hide under a table. The table is deep ultramarine blue and circular, and is supported by a single central pedestal. On the table sits a pot with a houseplant in it. The left side, and about one fifth of the painting, depicts a curtain which is covered in a leaf format pattern in blues, yellows and oranges that echo and complement the other elements of floor, figure and table. The painting is lit from the back by a pinkish tinged plane that holds subtle traces of floral patterning. About four fifths of the painting is built of pattern; only the arms, legs and face of the child, the table and the plant pot are without decoration. The child is looking into the floor, and is simultaneously supported by, and held within, the blue and white pattern of the floor. The figure of the child is the central image of the painting, however, the narrative is emmeshed into the patterned depictions of the domestic interior. The stark way in which the curtain fabric section is placed against the patterned floor denies the suggested space of the room, compressing the depth of illusionistic space occupied by the child, and forcing the figure to sit more clearly at the front of the painting space. This pictorial device reveals rather than conceals the child, allowing that figure to be more vulnerable and less protected than the image initially suggests. Although at first glance this is a single figure painting, the viewer and potentially another person, child or adult, are behind the curtain. This absent presence provokes an underlying uncertainty about the nature of the game being played out, and the nature of the person behind the curtain. If the viewer is indeed the only one behind that curtain then there is an atmosphere of discomfort at the centre of that viewing. Gerda Roper has referred to the "dread of being found or worse, forgotten" that is an essential part of the game of Hide and Seek. In Hide and Seek in the quiet of the day there is a sense that the hidden person who is behind the curtain, beyond the painting, is observing but not necessarily seeking the child, and thus in this painting there exists the possibility of being seen but not sought.

Gerda Roper, Hide and Seek by Moonlight, 2019In Hide and Seek by Moonlight, the blonde blue eyed child is half hiding and half sleeping under a small pink table on which sits a glowing golden pink vase containing large flowers, the petals of which suggest hands with pointed fingers. Behind the table is a soft plush sofa upholstered in a rich patterned fabric. The table and the sofa sit on a carpet of blue and red sunflowers which the child appears to be resting upon. The space between the sofa and the carpet is a moonscape; the night sky a deep ultramarine blue and the moon a hot alizarin crimson. The flowers appear to be seeking, reaching up towards the moon, but by contrast the child is looking straight out of the picture space. The painting of the carpet blends into the blues of the night sky. It is as if the child is laying on a large soft voluminous cushion that provides comfort and security whilst he waits to be found. The petal hands can be read as being protective of the child, but also as very slightly threatening as they appear to grasp outwards and to reach beyond the vase. The painting presents a reverie but the petal hands strike a discordant note to the overall harmony.

In his 2013 Reith Lecture Beating the Bounds, Grayson Perry argued that it is 'a very noble thing to be decorative' as an artist. Decoration is typically described as serving to make something look more attractive or ornamental. Pattern may be used to enhance the visual attractiveness of an object or an image but pattern can be far more than a repeated decorative design, as it offers a regularity in the world, and indicates a particular way in which something is organised or happens. Pattern can communicate through intelligible form or sequence, and this is certainly true in the work of Gerda Roper. In Hide and Seek in the Quiet of the Day the majority of the painted surface is formed of patterned areas representing flat surfaces and fabrics. 

 Winifred Nicholson, Arab Roses, 1971  Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bathroom, 1946Many artistic precedents exist for this but the most pertinent references for Gerda Roper's paintings are to be found in the domestic interiors of Pierre Bonnard Nude in the Bathroom (1946), Winfred Nicholson's Arab Roses (1971), and the paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau, for example, Le Enseigne de Gersaint (1720). Her use of hot colour palettes is reminiscent of Odil Redon.

In Gerda Roper's paintings the natural world is brought into domestic spaces through the use of decoration and pattern. Patterned elements such as curtains, chairs, wallpapers, pots of flowers and lamp bases, anchor the images in specific places. Gerda Roper writes of her practice, "I am always mindful that a painting is read as much by how it is painted as what it depicts. A practice more readily understood in abstract work but also remobilised in figurative painting". This observation is particularly interesting in relation to the set of drawings and paintings that feature curtains as the main motif. Gerda Roper says of this ongoing series, "I still love the thrill of the morning light coming through a curtain, but I suspect they are the only paintings other than flowers which have no figure, no narrative in them". However, whilst there is no figure depicted, we the viewer are present and central to enacting the narrative of paintings such as That Morning Curtain.

Gerda Roper, That Morning Curtain, 2016, 1m x 1mIn this painting the floral pattern of the curtain fabric, painted in a range of cadmium reds, constitutes about nine tenths of the image. Behind the red curtain sits a lace curtain, and beyond and below the curtains is a bluish area tinged with both the red of the curtain and the sunrise beyond the window. The curtains appear to be activated but a slight breeze and the handling of paint allows the whole image to gentle breathe in and out. The painting can be seen as an exquisite evocation of the experience of awakening from sleep in a bedroom filled with glowing light and the optimism of a new day, the fabric representing the bodily and the sensual. However, patterning and decoration can be used to dissemble and to conceal, to create unease as well as to comfort, and this image hints at other female experiences of closed domestic spaces and the concealment of identity emmeshed within the home.

Gerda Roper, The Moon beyond the Curtain, 2016, 60cm x 60cmGerda Roper remembers The Moon Beyond the Curtain, as one of the first paintings she made when she returned to live in Wales and adjusted to life in a new house by the seafront. It is a painting about being in bed in the warmth and comfort of the home and looking out at the unrelenting sea beyond. The glow of the interior contrasts with the light of the moon and the two, the inner and the outer lights, meet at the finely drawn edge between the two forms, where they are held in visual tension between warm and cold, challenging and alluring, and comforting and safe. The painting of the curtain eloquently suggests the soft tactile qualities of draped fabric and the pleasures of bedlinen and the bedroom. The sea is represented by a flattened area and seems to tug slightly at the edge of the curtain, perhaps as a metaphor for the pull between interior and exterior worlds, and the raw realities and beauty of nature as represented by the sea, in contrast to the controlled and systematised representation of nature in the curtain. The focal point of the small full moon is at the extremity of the upper right side of the painting. The rendering of the fabric suggests a strong feminine presence especially when set against the blues of sea and sky. As in That Morning Curtain we the viewer are present within the extended frontal space of the painting, but in this work there is a suggestion of a person in the room between ourselves and the beautiful pink curtain. The person is present but invisible, sensed but not seen, hinting at the invisibility of many women who live alone and whose existence is somewhat hidden from view.

Gerda Roper's work is characterised by her use of accessible, human, and deeply absorbing imagery, her gentle humour, and intense and acute levels of observation of people, situations and encounters. Her work is distinguished by highly skilled draughtsmanship and deft paint handling, which she utilises to create paintings that allow the viewer to suspend belief and enter into other realities. This is achieved with great subtlety, and a very individual lightness of touch in the use of scale and palette. We find the paintings absorbing because the artist has so carefully observed and felt the realities of the situations and people that she depicts, and as result the experience of engaging with them is uniquely rich and rewarding.

Jill Journeaux 2020

Jill Journeaux is Professor of Fine Art in the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities, at Coventry University. She convenes Drawing Conversations, an ongoing series of exhibitions, symposia and publications. Her art is in private and public collections in the UK, Channel Islands, the USA, France, Germany and Portugal.


All images and content © Gerda Roper 2020