Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Athi Patra Ruga: of Bugchasers and What-what

The plurality of expression that the post-modern era has facilitated has more than just expanded definitions of art it has ushered creators from other disciplines into this once exclusive art realm. Though photojournalists and crafters have made the deepest inroads into the art world, architects, filmmakers, sound designers and fashion designers have also shifted their creative focus into this lofty terrain. The transition from a commercial or media bound realm into the complex territory of art is not always smooth. So many of these would-be artists are like bulls in a china shop; without any comprehensive understanding of the nuances of the new visual language they have assumed, they clumsily move-about, tripping over the concepts they propagate. Athi-Patra Ruga is not cut from this cloth. He may be a fashion designer, but his appropriation of the language of art has been surprisingly swift and adept. And this exhibition, his second solo, cements his status as a (rising) artist.

Of course, his fascination and interest in dress, clothing or exterior appearances persists. His first solo at the Michael Stevenson gallery last year still saw him employing clothing as his medium of expression – albeit unconventional garments imbued with metaphorical significance. This exhibition reveals a new confidence; he has dispensed with clothing as a creative vehicle and focussed his attention on the nature of image-making, which as a facet of fashion, he is equally comfortable interrogating. Of course, this does mean he is assuming more conventional contemporary art mediums – video and photography – but certainly these tools offer Ruga a more sophisticated and complex mechanisms through which to explore themes of identity, race and gender. Dealing with all three of these popular motifs is like scoring a trifecta in the art world but Ruga does put his own spin on these issues in such a manner that suggests that he is not necessarily a disciple of convention.

In fact he has made it his business to rock the establishment and the social mores it promulgates. He doesn’t achieve his objective via subversion or derision rather he enacts his incursions on the systems he wishes to destabilise. Naturally he employs clothing or inappropriate clothing and accessories to establish his rebellious intentions. In …after he left (this is the title all small case), a video artwork, Ruga is seen strutting around in fishnet stockings, red high heels and a leotard - the stereotypical garb of a prostitute. Such a get up is sexually provocative and would normally raise a few eyebrows, but worn by a man it presents an even more disturbing scenario. But it is not just the act of dressing that creates friction it is the contexts that Ruga “tests-out” this persona; wearing a lampshade over his head he parades in this daring outfit at a taxi rank, a church and outside a police station (ex John Vorster Square). These locales all represent the cornerstone of the establishment – law and religion. Taxi ranks seem to be governed by a conservative patriarchal authority, as was evidenced in the attacks on young women wearing mini-skirts, and so it too has become a site where moral attitudes are enforced and, in this instance, contested. Because there are people milling about at the taxi rank, Ruga’s presence creates visible friction, whereas when he scales the wall outside a police station (as seen in … the naivety of Beiruth series) there are no witnesses and his incursion upon this space and the ideologies it represents is a silent invasion or rebellion. While this brand of performance does recall Steven Cohen’s irreverent performance art, Ruga isn’t dependent on an audience to achieve his objective; the photographs and video function as evidence of his “intrusions”. Ruga, the artist, also distances himself from the performance by not only dressing up in garb that conceals his identity but in assuming a character, Beiruth (derived from the Lebanese capital, Beirut). Beiruth is an ambiguous persona; it is hard to identify the gender of this character and, aside from the allusions to prostitution, she/he isn’t a recognisable caricature or archetype. This is in part achieved by the black headpiece that Beiruth wears, which is a bizarre confluence between a burqa and a military helmet. Therefore, Beiruth does not represent a particular faction of society bur rather a particular aspect of the human condition. The push-pull between revealing and concealing, the masculine and the feminine, which are embodied in the conflicted nature of the Beiruth’s costume, is the focus of an external battle, between society and the individual and within the individual’s psyche too. So just as the viewer tries to pinpoint Beiruth’as gender and identity, so too does Beiruth move between revealing and concealing who he/she is.

After he left and the Naivety of Beiruth series are certainly the most intriguing and challenging artworks of this exhibition and most revealing of the growth and development of this young talent. His collection of embroidered cloths, which couch dark themes of race, rejection and sexuality within upbeat stylised imagery are also visually and intellectually satisfying.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Kagiso Pat Mautloa; The Goodman Gallery

There is no obvious human presence in much of Mautloa’s art at this exhibition. As the title of the exhibition suggests, it conjures the attendance of an insidious and unknowable entity that has corrupted everyday objects, forcing them to betray their function. In this way he inadvertently summons an environment governed by a noxious force that is powerful enough to permeate solid inanimate objects, steadily eating away at their structure until presumably nothing is left. His preoccupation with discarded objects brings to mind Kay Hassan’s recent exhibition Urbanation, which depicts enormous piles of disused items. Hassan and Mautloa are clearly, interested the parallel societies that exist in this country; those that carelessly consume and discard objects, and the community that survive on this disused detritus. Though there is a socio-political undertone to Mautloa’s art he also summons more universal themes such as the transcendental nature of objects and our ability to imbue objects with new meanings. This is why he has chosen to present objects at the end of their lifecycle; when they can no longer fulfil the purpose for which they were designed. For it is at this point that an object’s abstract possibilities can be realised.

Aside from a frying pan and a violin case, most of the discarded items that Mautloa combines in his artworks are tools of labour with the spade being a reoccurring motif. He doesn’t summon quotidian representations of the spade; keen to convey the coarse personality or character of this pedestrian object he employs actual spades. Much of these items are unnaturally worn and disintegrated. Presumably the artist has worked at degrading the objects. This is because Mautloa is interested in the effects an environment has on objects over time and their life-cycle. In some cases the spades that Mautloa presents in his art are so disintegrated they have almost ceased being spades. The wryly titled, Spade (2008) is so degraded by rust that it could no longer function as a spade. This spade is embedded within the confines of a mixed media painting that contains other worn objects, suggesting that it is not just the spade that has been degraded by this environment but any material that exists in the environs. In this way Mautloa indirectly conjures up the milieu from which these objects are derived. It is within this harsh locale that such a robust object like a spade, which is designed to infringe upon nature and battle the elements, is destroyed - albeit gradually. If this is the fate of the inanimate objects what of the delicate living beings who also inhabit this destination, who are more susceptible to natural conditions? Mautloa’s art suggests that the denizens of this tough environment have learned to adapt. This is especially evidenced in the sculptures, which show how different disused objects have been fused into new entities with quite a different function. Works Sculpture 3 (2008) for instance sees a rake fused with other steel objects to create an item that rises above its purpose to become an object of beauty. Portrait (2008) sees a frying pan, bolt and fork simulate the features of a human face. Mentor (2008) consists of one large bicycle wheel conjoined to a smaller wheel with the aid of a leather strap. Here disused objects are inculcated with a metaphorical function that reflects human endeavours. This renders insignificant objects momentous. Ordinary tools of labour become prized objects of beauty. It is an empowering process, whereby objects lose their objective purpose, becoming a vehicle for subjective expression.

Mautloa’s work demonstrates a curiosity about the status of an object once it no longer fulfils its function. This is partly driven by a philosophical quest that questions the process of invention. It is also motivated by Mautloa’s interest in the nature and conditions under which “renewal” takes place. Both of these issues are of particular concern to the South African artist; not just the process of creativity but the movement towards social and moral renewal that has dominated the post-apartheid era.

My Art Story (2008) which features an empty violin case, a painted surface covered by graffiti, alluding to a history of protest, and a makeshift art-making tool, fashioned from three different objects, speaks of the poverty, and compromises that survival demands but also of the way in which disparate entities have been forged together to engender functionality. In this way the dysfunctional objects with no purpose become valuable functional tools of creation.

The quality of the artworks at this exhibition is not always consistent, Round and About the City is a trite artwork presenting a montage of Joburg that looks like it was designed to appeal to a conservative corporate collector. Mautloa’s mixed media portraits also fail to enthral. However, this does not distract from this exhibition’s value and the magnificence of paintings such as Looking Back.

· Other Presences is showing at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until September 13

Dispelling myths about dad

With Pippa Skotnes curating this exhibition, there was never any chance that it would be a run-of-the-mill showing of Cecil Skotnes's art. It's not just that, as his daughter, she has a more intimate relationship with his work, but she is known for pushing the envelope in her approach to curating. However, she has managed to create a novel exhibition that seeks to challenge the myth-making that surrounds artists of Cecil's calibre.

Charged with influencing and shaping the careers of many of South Africa's top black artists such as Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae and Durant Sihali during his years at the helm of the Polly Street Art Centre during the apartheid era, Cecil's status in the local art scene has been high. His own oeuvre, with its characteristic melding of African and modernist aesthetics, has also secured him an iconic standing in South African art history.

But these are all defining qualities of his public persona. With this exhibition, Pippa and Thomas Cartwright, her co-curator from the University of Cape Town's Centre for Curating the Archive, are intent on bringing Cecil's private and seldom-seen character into focus. This is driven by a desire to demystify the artist, posits a pamphlet.

To achieve this end, all kinds of memorabilia and personal objects are displayed with artworks that have not been seen in public. Dirty paintbrushes, palettes crusted thick with the colours of the rainbow and knick-knacks from Cecil's studio are presented in one glass cabinet while another houses his collection of bow ties and a number of empty wine bottles bearing labels designed by the artist.

The glass cabinets that exhibit this quirky assortment of memorabilia conjure up more of a museum-like approach to presentation, positing these ordinary objects as valuable and collectable items.

This seems at odds with the curators' objective of bringing Cecil down from his pedestal. The disused wine bottles or bow ties are deemed to be of value only because they belong to Cecil. So although we have a window into Cecil's intimate world, learning that he collects bow ties or that he has a watercolour that he painted for his wife hanging in his studio, the value of these ordinary objects is rooted in his status as a "genius artist".

Perhaps this contradiction can be attributed to the familial connection Pippa shares with him. Like most daughters, she is able to maintain two seemingly incongruous images of her father; while she knows him to be a flawed and everyday person, she simultaneously views him as a master of his craft. This is all conjecture, however.

This exhibition also has another curious feature. Across one wall is a giant collage of photographs (taken by Paul Weinberg) of Cecil's home. They are not documentary-style photographs, rather they appear like highly styled images that depict particular features of a room, such as the ornamentation on a wall or on a coffee table. They do make for a pleasing montage, but mostly they do not foster any intimacy with the artist.

A photograph of his bookshelf and one of Cecil staring out from his sunny balcony does give one a glimpse into his habits but the others parade a fashionable faade that wouldn't look amiss in a glossy decor magazine.

Cecil's ornaments all exude an African vibe, which are not unexpected or revealing; they are quite consistent with the strong African flavour that characterises his art.

This does suggest that his appropriation of African forms wasn't a passing phase or part of a superficial connection to a culture motivated by a desire to forge a new idiom.

And, as such, Cecil certainly didn't conceal his work's link to an African visual syntax. The collection of artworks on this exhibition shows him to be most fascinated and inspired by the configuration of the African mask.

He is obviously interested in the mask's formal qualities but he also seems concerned with its ideological significance. In a watercolour drawing from the 1980s (few of the works are titled), he shows a puppeteer controlling a number of masks that cover the faces of a group of people. The puppeteer doesn't wear a mask, allowing his grotesque features to be viewed but, with two wooden legs, it is suggested that he is also reliant on artificial appendages.

One can't help thinking that Cecil was undermining Western perceptions of African objects, especially the African mask which, with its distorted and supposedly terrifying features, was perceived to be the avatar of primitiveness.

Cecil doesn't seem to view the mask as a device to conceal. His appropriation of its form, with the large colour-blocked composition, is able to reveal the layers that lie beneath the human skin. In Pale Prisoners (1975) in which the human form is portrayed as a series of interlocking bands of colour, it's as if the artist has pulled back the skin, exposing the body's inner workings.

The extensive collection of letters, which have been laminated and can be handled instead of being shown inside a glass cabinet, do allow one an insider's view into Cecil's world.

One handwritten letter by him gives us a glimpse into how he perceived himself. He undermines his role in the careers of black artists when he writes: "Whatever achievements have been registered by the black artists are monuments to their natural ability and their desire to create art in the face of the most astonishing difficulties."

· Cecil Skotnes: A Private View is showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until September 6

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pop Goes the Art Object

There are only a handful of bona fide art curators in South Africa; that is, practitioners who view curating as a specialised skill and not as an adjunct activity to art making. Clive Kellner is one the most capable of this ilk and the Johannesburg Art Gallery’s (JAG’s) latest exhibition, The Dematerialisation of the Art Object, is evidence of his talent for curating a collection of artworks within the budget constraints of an under-funded public art institution. One can’t help wondering what the JAG’s fate will be when Kellner leaves his post at the end of this year. No one seems to know where Kellner will be going or why he is leaving. But perhaps this exhibition is indicative of Kellner’s eagerness to dispense with the administrative preoccupations of his work, which must steal valuable time and attention from his love of curating.
Juxtaposing artworks from some of the most influential players in the modern and postmodern art movements, such as Andy Warhol and Fernand Leger, with contemporary artworks from this country, Kellner probes the disintegration of the traditional art object.
And ever faithful to JAG’s mandate to educate the public, Kellner has a broad audience in mind. Many people with little or no understanding of art experience a mind block when it comes to conceptual art. Without a recognisable or conventional art object at which to direct their attention, they feel at sea. A brand of art that favours ideas over form has therefore not really proved to be a crowdpleaser.
Cognisant of this, Kellner has designed an exhibition that visually and practically – through the use of texts – demonstrates how and why the “dematerialisation” of the art object occurred and, more importantly, what impact this has had on South African art. South African contemporary
art is most commonly viewed and studied in isolation from international trends – a consequence of political seclusion. But Kellner creates a vital link between the roots of conceptual art and the
present-day South African expression in such a way that homegrown art is posited within a global context and not as a product of parochial concerns or a flimsy derivative of Western trends.
Had Kellner hung South African art from the same timeframe as the majority of international pieces (mostly dated from the 1940s to 1980s) he would have created a dialogue that sought to insert South African expression into the grand narrative of modernism. Instead, he proceeds as though South African art has already claimed a legitimate status in art history.
Though the exhibition encompasses the various streams of modernism, Kellner’s attention seems more intent on forging a link between the instigators of conceptual art and the work of South African conceptual artists, such as Kendell Geers and Willem Boshoff.
This contexualises their oeuvres within the wider conceptual art movement, overriding the notion that their work is conceived within a vacuum.The almost circular layout of the exhibition is such that one commences and concludes with examples of oshoff ’s works, a journey which, hopefully, will end with viewers being able to place Boshoff ’s work in a historical context.
But the configurations of the artworks don’t follow a strictly linear path, hinting at the complexities inherent in the evolution of the art movements depicted.
The crème de la crème of Pop Artists are represented with Roy Lichtenstein’s Crak (1964), Warhol’s Joseph Beuys (1980) and, in particular, Tom Wasselman’s Nude (1965). This collection demonstrates the manner in which traditional forms, such as the human body, became stylised, shifting focus from form to the ideas they articulate.
Employing mass-produced objects, a collection of trite touristy postcards of London, Gilbert and George’s The Morning After (1981) continues in the same vein of Pop Art but takes the movement a step further. They employ aspects of mass culture so as to blur the boundary between art and life.
In this artwork clichéd imagery is used to glorify English culture in an effort to undermine it. And just as one can’t imagine Gilbert and George’s unique aesthetic existing without Pop Art, the same could be said for Kendell Geers brand of art. Geers’s practice relies heavily on appropriating common,mass-produced objects. He makes slight alterations that not only elevate these objects to high-art status but in so doing provide commentary on the nature of art and society. The Brick is an ideal example of this. A news story of the deaths of an impoverished family in a fire – attributed to a hot brick they used to heat their humble abode – transforms a run-of-the-mill brick into a profound sociopolitical statement. It’s hard to imagine a single brick causing such devastation. Ultimately it is the environment and conditions in which this brick has been used that have brought about such catastrophe.
The important point that Geers’s work, and that of Alan Alborough and Boshoff, makes in this exhibition is that, contrary to popular assumption, South African conceptual art doesn’t mimic its Western counterpart.Rather, the visual and conceptual idioms have been appropriated so as to articulate concerns that are particular to South Africa. In this way South African art is part of international trends while having personal relevance for locals.

  • The Dematerialisation of the Art Object is on at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until the end of September

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Dumas Review

Dumas again. I am not quite finnished with her work and I don't think it is because I have succumbed to the myth and intrigue that that surrounds a "famous" artist. I like to think that I am able to make a distinction between hype and authentic value. Anyway - as per usual - there were many observations about her work that was absent from my review of Intimate Relations in The Sunday Independent. Although Dumas told me during a interview that she was fascinated by the manner in which film (and actors) create the illusion that the protagonists are directly engaging with their audience, this aspect to her work came more clearly into focus at the exhibition. It initially came to my attention while watching a documentary on Dumas at the exhibition in which she articulates the idea that reality is not her source; that is was cinematic renditions of reality that initially inspired her. That she continues to work from Polaroids and images from popular culture further suggests that it is a mediation of reality that interests her.
Painting is always assumed to be the "mediated" version of reality, but Dumas employs it rather as a medium to mediate other mediated realities. So it is no longer the source of reality that is of significance but rather how our relationship to "the source" is obfuscated and warped through various sets of filters engineered to maintain the status quo or to challenge the norm as Dumas attempts. It light of this it makes sense that Dumas would not use a live model as her source, I think that she is intrigued by this idea of a subject that engages with a viewer that is not present. This idea intrigues me too, for it implies the degree to which we all subject to self-censorship; although we are not being watched we act as if we are even when we are alone.
These are just some of the ideas that were missing from my review. Under increasing pressure to write more populist art reviews, in my Sunday Independent review below, I tried to shift the focus to another aspect of Dumas' art which I believe makes her art "accessible" to the broader public. Of course, by the end of the review I found that I could not completely disentangle the intellectual value of her work from its aesthetics.

Marlene Dumas’ paintings challenge the mode in which we consume art. It is easy to get swept up by the cerebral pleasures that contemporary art offers, only savouring the physical dimensions that further concepts. It has a tendency to function as a conduit for ideas rather than being a purely aesthetic adventure for spectators and the slick multi-media mediums that contemporary artists employ often removes the sensual dimensions that were once integral to the art object.

However, it is the visual or corporeal characteristics of Dumas’ art that provides a point of entry. While her art is irretrievably rooted in a complex matrix of concepts that are tethered to gender politics and the art of representation, it also comprises a seductive dimension that stimulates more than just the intellect. The visual drama of her art is a consequence of her medium; painting. Dumas has denied claims that she has reinvigorated painting but her art does prove that painting is still a relevant if not potent medium.

At the opening of her exhibition – her first solo showing in her country of birth – Emma Bedford, the curator, highlighted the physicality of Dumas work, suggesting that the tactile nature of art is rarely prized by South Africa’s art intelligentsia. Consumed by the political and ideological facets of contemporary art, she implied that our art world – and, perhaps, our society – has desisted from surrendering to this almost primal feature of art. Bedford has a point and given the intellectual gymnastics required to decipher much contemporary art, what she proposes offers a fairly liberating approach to reading art.

It especially resonates when you are standing in front of one of Dumas’ rich portraits and are yearning to surrender to its aesthetics rather than intellectualising its themes. Glorious Venice (1985), for example, is painfully exquisite. You have to fight the urge to stroke the canvas, touching the subject’s delicious, pouty ruby lips and her silky skin. Similarly, you feel compelled to swim in the conflation of azure and iridescent mauve tones that bring her semi-nude form to life.

With an innate grasp of the dynamics of seduction, Dumas is deft at enticing her audience with imagery, however - and herein lies the rub - she is also incredibly skilled at reminding us about the mechanics of seduction. This makes her audience acutely self-conscious about their relationship to her subjects, rendering it near impossible to simply revel in the painting’s surface embellishments. Duma’s art suggests that the act of admiring or consuming “the other” is intrinsically burdened by emotional and societal baggage, which gnaws at the viewer, creating tension and setting a mood of discomfort that cannot be casually forgotten. The female subject in Glorious Venice is obviously and purposively presented as a sensual creature but at the same time there is an awkwardness about her stance and her body that suggests she trying to resist her subject status, thereby avoiding the viewer’s gaze. However, there are also indications that she has chosen to display herself, so it is almost as if she wants to be noticed, she needs that attention. Amid this indecision it also becomes apparent that her behaviour is part of an involuntary charade that has been embedded in her psyche. So, just as her hands cup her breasts in an effort to conceal them, she could also be propping them up to show them up at their best. Much of Dumas’ art features unruly subjects, women who are simultaneously willing and unwilling prey of the viewers’ ever penetrative stare. In Misinterpreted (1988) a woman lifts her skirt back to reveal a triangle of her white knickers. One’s gaze is automatically drawn to this intimate part that she is revealing – isn’t she offering it to one? However, as one moves one’s gaze up the pictorial plane, one notices that Dumas’ subject is watching, creating a vicious cycle in which the watched is watching the watcher, thereby engendering a role reversal in which the viewer becomes the subject. It’s an ambiguous relationship, a stalemate in which neither party is able to get the upper hand.

This brand of ambiguity is a defining characteristic of Dumas’ art and one can’t help feeling that it is driven by more than stereotypical observations about gender. As the title of the exhibition implies, Dumas is interested in the ambiguous relationship between the self and the other and the constant level of negotiation between the private and the public. It is no coincidence that Dumas has employed the female nude to articulate these concepts, by sourcing iconography from art’s canon and popular culture she is able to demonstrate that the conflict between the private and the public is determined by external paradigms. That she gets to undermine the tradition of the female nude, a cornerstone of art’s canon, and carve out a place in art history for herself is just a bonus.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Marlene Dumas in Jozi

This was the week that the Dumas circus rolled into town and the media bandwagon jumped in head long, kicking up hype. On Tuesday Dumas gave a walkabout tour of her exhibition at The Standard Bank gallery during the press preview of the show. Having already interviewed her over the phone before Intimate Relations opened in Cape Town last year I had good grasp on Dumas, but it was nevertheless rewarding to see her in person. The voice that I bonded with over the phone from Amsterdam was easily reconciled with her physical presence; warm, reflective, playful and unpretentious that appears to be her character in broad brushstrokes as one watching from afar. Like most famous folk I think Dumas struggles with the public pesona that is ascribed to her. She loathes not being able to control what is said and written about her work. At the conclusion of the walkabout she looked out at the sea of faces - all media - sizing her up her and no doubt shuddered at the thought of what their conception of her and her work might be. "Please don't put words in my mouth," she urged. She should know better. It is not the words or quotes that misrepresent public personas it is the details and discreet observations that serve as padding in between quotes that articulate - and condemn - the subject. Dumas fears were well founded, one so-called art journalist's take on Dumas painted an ugly portrait. I felt enraged - not because I situate Dumas on a pedestal - but I loathe journalists who scrimp on research and root their observations in their limited knowledge. In such a situation the nuance of the subject is lost. This article was an appalling piece of journalism that will no doubt blight the journalists' reputation among those in the know. Those who comprehend and value quality and ethical journalism are a very small group of people... but make no mistake they are there watching from the corner of their eye. As for Dumas, working in the public realm she has no choice but to surrender control. She enjoys writing and has tried to contribute to the multitude of voices that interpret and typecast her work.
"I don’t like being paternalised and colonised by every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes along (male or female). I want to participate in the writing of my own history."
While I relish reading what Dumas writes - there is something poetic and perceptive about her written expression - I quickly discovered when I interviewed her that she plays with words, juggling them around and subverting, challenging their meaning to such an extent that she destabilses their significance, robbing them of their concrete value. As such Dumas does not abide by what she has said - so how can she have a hand in writing an authentic history of herself?
Has any artist been able to write their own history?
Also given how self-deprecating Dumas is - "not everything I do is great" - can she feed into the myth that surrounds her as a world-acclaimed artist? She is acutely aware of the mythmaking that surrounds famous artists and seems to be trying to undermine the phenomenon that is "Marlene Dumas." This of course, brings one to the underlying question that her exhibition inspires: Is Dumas great because her work has sold for over $3-million or are the exhorbitant prices her work commands only fitting for art that is intellectually and visually progressive. I think that the (monetary) value of her art has created a vexed relationship between Dumas and her oeuvre as it has for Damian Hirst. In my interview with Dumas she told me she was afraid of "impersonating herself."

Friday, February 1, 2008

Alison Kearney and Emily Stainer/Goodman Gallery

Writing up end of year lists of the best art exhibitions last year for The Sunday Independent and Art SA, it suddenly struck me how few shows have left a lasting impression or, in retrospect, were that intellectually or visually progressive. As such I approached the first show of the year, Alison Kearney and Emily Stainer at The Goodman in Jozi, with a sharper eye and less generous attitude. I arrived at The Goodman wanting to be blown away, wanting the art to shift something in my psyche. Unfortunately Kearney and Stainer's art did neither. Read my review below:

In the entrance hall to the gallery one is greeted by a delicately executed gouche painting featuring an ornate vintage plate on which sits the gnarled foot of a chicken. Hardly a sight to whet the appetite but Emily Stainer’s talent for prettifying the grotesque, renders the image surprisingly charming, in an old-worldly way. Adjacent to this artwork is a sepia photograph by Alison Kearney that presents a rural idyll populated by women resplendent in garments from a bygone era, similarly conjuring up an ambience closely affiliated with Victoriana. This creates the impression that the art of Kearney and Stainer are visually and conceptually unified. But nothing could be further from the truth. When one enters the gallery and is confronted with their latest oeuvres it becomes immediately obvious that the art of Kearney and Stainer is poles apart.

Transfixed by the process in which meaning is assigned to objects, Kearney’s art is centred on unpacking the values that individuals instil in everyday items. Addressing this theme Kearney invited members of the public to exchange objects with her, requesting that they leave behind an object of their choice with explanations for their selections. The result is Put Something In to Take Something Out (November 2006), a vast collage of handwritten messages and snapshots of a myriad of seemingly mundane objects.

This unconventional artwork articulates a laissez faire approach to art-making in which the artist surrenders agency, allowing the public to have a hand at engineering the content and removing her desire to inculcate spectators with her perception of reality. This may be a brave and risky undertaking but with art’s meaning so reliant on viewers’ interpretation one could argue that it is audiences who ultimately confer art with significance. Even though Kearney configures the participants’ messages into a logical arrangement by applying an ordering system to facilitate understanding, the result is a mishmash of expression that has no coherency. Not that Kearney is striving for consistency. Predictably, the responses she received from spectators reveals a mixture of abstract, literal or emotional associations with objects that further separates “the thing” (sign or object) from what it denotes. This leaves one with the conclusion that objects are blank entities that are simply malleable conduits for meaning.

Just as French philosopher Rene Descartes attempted to suspend his beliefs so that he could approach reality from a fresh perspective, one senses that Kearney is endeavoring to detach meaning from objects thereby allowing for their authentic import to become apparent. This concept is further explored in Taking Flight and Wishful Thinking, which shows Kearney taking an everyday object such as a paper airplane, trying to ascertain at what point in its construction or dissemination its bona fide meaning is imbued.

Stainer’s art on the other hand sees her configuring an object to reveal the influence cultural producers wield over society, instilling fear and reinforcing moral codes. Her meticulously executed brand of painting – which can no doubt be attributed to her spell at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London – suggests that the intricacy and beauty of cultural products persuades, coerces and moulds our perceptions of reality from a young age, allowing us little room to subjectively interpret the world. Stainer is apparently – according to the PR bumf - preoccupied with paradoxical rhymes and children’s tales that juxtapose pretty illustrations and idealised sentiments with cruelty and abuse. The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, which sees a child devoured for dinner, being an ideal example of how conflicting and disturbing messages are embedded in primitive tales.

Aside from the title of this series of works – Cautionary Tale – the connection between Stainer’s plates of dismembered body parts and children’s fairytales is ambiguous. If Stainer has indeed sought to mine this literary canon she may have chosen a more direct vehicle to articulate her concepts. Her art is also repetitive; each artwork a variation of a single image. This leaves one with the impression that she has not accessed the nuances or intricacies of her subject matter. The same can be said of her Cautionary Tales: Cages series that once again sees dismembered body parts - women's legs - situated in a normalised environment, in this instance inside ornate Victorian cages.

However, Stainer’s art is not completely devoid of cunning strategies. She has achieved the unthinkable by rendering mutilated animal or body parts in such a way that they are not grotesque, thereby alluding to the manner in which threatening actions in fairytales are almost stripped of malice. The idea that child abuse is introduced to kids through bedtime stories is a fascinating concept to explore; does it prepare children for the evil that lurks in the adult population or does it normalise mistreatment? - The Sunday Independent (January 27)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hello new blog

Starting a new blog is like opening a new (blank) book or facing an empty canvas; it is terrifying and exhilarating. What this blog will be(come) I do not know. For a long time I have wanted to establish a blog that reflects on the Johannesburg art scene. Not a Jozi-style "Art Heat"; I hope to offer visitors something more substantial than the content of Robert Sloon's blog. Under increasing pressure to censor my art reviews for a "broader" newspaper reading public, I also want to establish a platform where I can express myself without being subject to what is ultimately a form of self-censorship. So although I hope this blog will eventually enable me to interact with like minded folk, my intention is really create a space where I can think out loud. As with most writers I only interpret and comprehend through writing; it is only in the process of writing that I am able to access and order my thoughts.