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)

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