Monday, January 26, 2009

Robyn Penn's views from a prison of pain

Scenes of expansive cerulean skies dotted with soft, white, swollen clouds have always caught the artist’s eye. Associated with transcendental, other-worldly or celestial experiences or beings, they have been a reoccurring motif in religious art and landscape painting. For South Africans, such vistas are emblematic of the African topography, fulfilling notions that the continent is infinite, offering unlimited freedom of thought, action and movement. It therefore seems incongruent at first that Robyn Penn’s paintings of skies are associated with brutality – as the title of the exhibit infers.

The title references the contexts that inspired the paintings – the artist’s experience of illness and the death of her father. Yet the brutality of death is never depicted nor covertly hinted at. Such an understated representation of death is foreign to South Africans, who have through our bloody past and crime-ridden present, tended to think of death as a quick and violent exit from life. Our concern is so often focused on the sense of loss that follows, we rarely mediate on death’s steady approach.

Penn explores this psychological territory by capturing the static view of a skyline offered to a bed-ridden patient. We never see an ailing patient; Penn keeps the viewer’s gaze directed at the vista out of a window. Had she depicted a sick subject, she would have evoked pathos. Instead, she slyly reverses and fuses the roles of subject and observer, fixing the viewer in the subject’s position.

The blurring of the lines between the subject and viewer is perhaps the most interesting facet of her work; in removing the subject of the viewer’s gaze she is able to tackle watching as an activity. The act of watching is not only enjoyed by viewers of her art but also by the invisible subject, who lies in bed waiting for death. Such a device also shifts the discourse from physical suffering to the mental torment that besets an individual who is limited by the body’s incapacities.

Penn’s approach mirrors Julian Schnabel’s mode of narration in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which documented Jean-Dominique Bauby’s experience after he suffered a stroke and was paralysed and unable to communicate. For much of the film, Schnabel narrates the story from Bauby’s point of view, presenting his disjointed and static line of vision. Though the composition of Penn’s paintings doesn’t appear off kilter, it recalls scenes from the movie in which Bauby was moved outdoors to view the sea and the sky. It was in these moments in the film that the brutality of Bauby’s condition was amplified. Open, tranquil and natural spaces are thrilling for most but for the sick or handicapped they are a reminder of the gravity and frustration of their situation. It’s like a prisoner glimpsing an open field through a window; its beauty is only momentarily uplifting.

Penn’s sky paintings also encompass the tops of buildings. This limited view of solid, immovable objects contrasts with the ever-changing, ethereal nature of the sky, further creating a sense of limbo by showing an existence between two irreconcilable states of being. The buildings suggest that the subject/viewer is still rooted in the world but the connection is tenuous.

Though the vista that Penn presents is fixed, she is able to mark the passing of time through the shifting configurations or absence of the clouds.
In Before the Heat (2008) there are only wisps of white at the horizon while the upper reaches of the sky are a dark blue. Similarly, Before the Rain (2008) and Before the Noise (2008) present minor alterations to the atmosphere that are only gleaned from close observation. It seems fitting, given that an ill person crippled by their biological afflictions should be in tune with nature; an awareness of their own physicality and its fragility creates an alertness to the nuanced fluctuations in nature.
This idea is further explored in the study of wilting plants that define a number of smaller canvases in the exhibition. The fragility of life has historically been encapsulated in the life of flowers so the reference here does read as clichéd. Nevertheless, it complements the larger canvases of the skies, driving the message home.
It is in identifying the shifts in the sky (and nature) that Penn correlates the role of the painter or artist with the dying patient. Both closely watch reality as observers rather than as participants, with a freshness as though they are seeing it for the first time.
Paradoxically, both must also look beyond reality’s physical manifestations, viewing life and themselves within a wider system. Ultimately, this is not an overly remarkable exhibition that will leave a long-lasting imprint on the South African art world. It is far too understated in its visual and intellectual character for that.

Nevertheless, Penn’s striking blue skies and what they represent hover on the fringes of one’s consciousness for days.
A Brutal Year is the first exhibition of the year in Jo’burg and it marks an unchallenging start to this year’s art calendar. One hopes its title will not be a prophetic one.

- Robyn Penn: A Brutal Year will be at Brodie/Stevenson in Johannesburg until February 14

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thami Mnyele and Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective

During the past few years the Johannesburg Art Gallery has focused attention on black artists who were sidelined, staging large retrospectives of the likes of Dumile Feni and, more recently, Kay Hassan.

Although this exhibition is obviously an extension of that programme, the curators’ desire to elevate the art of Thami Mnyele has been so crudely executed that it forces you to question the methods entailed in rewriting or reclaiming history.

Mnyele and the cultural collective he was allied to, the Medu Art Ensemble, played a role in the anti-apartheid struggle movement, which means that this exhibition has undeniable historical and political value. This is not disputed. But should Mnyele, or any artist for that matter, be immortalised and mythologised to the extent that the curators of this exhibition have done?

Interestingly, Mnyele’s art is not at the centre of this exhibition, which is a pity considering the visual impact of his work. Instead, the curators have located his oeuvre in a political rather than an art narrative. As a result they unwittingly suggest his output and that of the collective has little significance in the realm of art. His oeuvre looks rather small. Perhaps that is why the curators were forced to construct elements around the art to give the exhibition weight. As a result the exhibition is like a conventional historical museum display with the concomitant clutter of memorabilia that are employed in myth making.

Art institutions are also powerful purveyors of history and have been known to cast artists as heroes, but their approach is usually less conspicuous, allowing the art to do the talking.

The curators (who are nameless) of this exhibition have gone to extreme lengths to canonise Mnyele. In one room, the central attraction is a glass box containing a branch of a thorn bush said to have pierced Mnyele’s skin during the raid on the Medu Art Ensemble (a Botswana-based cultural-political organisation) by the South African Defence Force in 1985, in which Mnyele died.

His death was undoubtedly tragic, but the display is a crude attempt at sanctifying him.

Admittedly, I studied the branch with wonder. But it wasn’t that I wanted to spot Mnyele’s dried blood – I was just curious to understand the conditions that have allowed such a display to make it into a modern liberal art institution, which has proved to be fairly cutting-edge over the past few years. An exhibition such as this propels you, kicking and screaming, back to a time when religious institutions were charged with creating mystique around people who were supposed to possess special powers.

The canonisation of Mnyele begins with a display of photographs of him and video footage of interviews with family members. In other words, the exhibition proceeds with the assumption that Mnyele is a hero and suggests that this status has been conferred on him because of his commitment to the struggle and not necessarily because of his art.

There are newspaper cut-outs documenting a landmark exhibition, It’s a New Day, held by Mnyele in Dube, Soweto. This does contextualise Mnyele’
s motivation and his contribution to what was then termed “black art”.
He clearly had an impact on art in the townships and encouraged artists to produce work that wasn’t solely for a white audience.

Some of the work from that exhibition are on display but they are not visually startling. Politics and art do not always make good bedfellows.

One of the sculptures alludes to modernism but it is an uncomfortable fit in the context of a politically charged exhibition. After all, modernism placed form above function, which is no doubt why resistance artists largely avoided abstraction. Artists of the struggle era traded in an expressionistic form of representational art. But in so doing their art was incredibly limited, conservative even. Social art with political change as its main objective isn’t able to further art’s own goals.

Mnyele’s art might not have been progressive but it is visually striking and superbly executed. His mixed-media drawings are poignant evocations of the human degradation apartheid laws forced on black South Africans.
Mnyele’s figures are battered out of shape, immersed in dirt; or have been atomised, summoning the abstract psychological horror and inhumanity of a brutal social system.

In pieces such as And the River was Dark and Alex and River Underground, he shows two parallel worlds coexisting. Above ground, a quaint and tranquil village is depicted. Deep below the surface is a dangerous, dark and dirty world, which leaves its marks on its inhabitants. The thick roots that snake through this realm encircle their bodies, holding them captive in this murky dysfunctional realm.

Mnyele’s resistance art is striking in that his mode of expression – a quasi-fantasy illustrative style – is unlike most resistance art. His work certainly doesn’t follow that characteristic Rorke’s Drift brand of resistance art, even though he did attend that famous institution.

It seems a pity, therefore, that he didn’t pursue his own unique style of art while at the Medu Art Ensemble, where he was put to work churning out political posters.

There is an extensive collection of these posters on exhibit but, frankly, not even graphic designers would be impressed. They may be bold but their design is rudimentary, which is to be expected, given the posters’ intended function.

With a profusion of gun motifs, these posters normalise violence and, although this gives viewers some insight into the ethos of that era, their significance is rooted in the fact that they mark a period of South African history. As such they should be displayed in a museum where viewers would not be trying to assess their artistic value.

Mnyele’s talent was squandered on creating commercial products and, considering how the new South African government has betrayed artists, you can’t help but wonder whether the sacrifices so many made were worth it.

If Mnyele had lived, it is doubtful he would have been hailed as a hero; more than likely he would be settled overseas where he could have had better access to funds to pursue his art.