Dormitory 2011

Identical beds line the walls and form a row down the center of the room to create a symmetric composition.

Julie Roberts, Dormitory, 2011; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.

Dormitory is part of a series of paintings and prints by Julie Roberts that reflects upon the experience of displaced children in mid-20th-century Europe. She acknowledges that the subject is somewhat autobiographical because she and her siblings spent part of their childhood in foster care and children’s homes.

The series, which uses archival photographs as source material, explores estrangement from conventional family life. Though some works feature portraits of child evacuees, others evoke human presence by rendering objects as stand-ins: rows of empty beds in orphanages, sparsely furnished schoolrooms, and individual pieces of clothing.

The compositional symmetry of Dormitory intimates the regimentation and anonymity typical of mid-century social care systems. Identical beds line the walls and form a row down the center of the room. Even the windows and blinds are each open to precisely the same height.

Roberts offset the precise forms in this image by incorporating dramatic shadows, as well as lines, circles, and zig-zags of paint that stand in high-relief on the work’s surface. She describes this technique as “cutting through” the strong, flat shapes in the image, which intensifies the surreal appearance of the scene.

National Museum of Women in the Arts