Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kurgan at AOP

Around this time of year the mass media pays a lot of attention to notions attached to "love". Much superficial mining of the designation ensues but so rarely is the complexity and transience of this emotion that holds such sway in our lives probed in any meaningful way.

Terry Kurgan doesn't delve into romantic love with this exhibition but rather explores a more multifaceted derivative that is shared between parents and children. Ultimately, what she offers are more than glib observations. Her evocative and haunting portraits deliver uncomfortable but incisive insights into the dynamics between children and their parents and the shifting boundaries that characterise these relationships.

But in characteristic Kurgan fashion, this theme also serves as the point of entry into a wider discourse that examines the photographic medium and the impulses that drive it.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by a triptych of sepia photographs dryly titled Untitled 12, 13 and 14 (1999 -2005). They feature a young boy taking a bath. He is relaxed and at ease and quite clearly comfortable sharing this intimacy with the author of the image - presumably Kurgan, his mother.

This series recalls Natasha Christopher's Bath (2003) - created for the Everard Read Art Award in 2005 - which also featured her son taking a bath. Christopher chose to blur her photograph almost beyond recognition in an effort to underpin her avid desire for an intimacy that could not be made tangible.

For Kurgan this scenario is also a test of closeness. The boy in her photographs is obviously old enough to bath himself and does not necessarily need an adult in attendance, though concerns for his safety might still prevail. Therefore, the observer/photographer's presence is required if only to monitor him. These images consequently encapsulate the beginning of a loosening of a close bond. The boy is starting to revel in his independence from the parent. This reality manifests most prominently in an image in which he is pictured with his head under the water. For the author/mother, her attendance signifies a surrendering of control.

But despite this shift in their relationship they are still able to share the intimacy that bathing intrinsically entails. The boy is not ashamed of his nakedness; in fact, he seems to display it in front his mother quite unselfconsciously.

Photographing this scene obviously pushes this relationship to its limits, because it concretises the event, it makes the nature of their affiliation public. It also tests Kurgan's restrain, for the act of photographing places her outside of herself and the relationship and she becomes the impassive observer rather than the watchful mother - albeit that the two roles translate into a close scrutiny of the subject.

This is the irony of the medium; though it is most often in its daily use employed to capture shared intimacies, the act of photographing immediately creates a chasm between the subject and the author.

Having photographed children throughout her career, Kurgan has discovered that up until a certain age children aren't aware of being the subject in photographs. This allows for a more penetrative or unedited view of these subjects. They grant access to facets of themselves that they would withhold if they were more conscious of the character of photography.

This is evidenced in the triptych of the boy in the bath; he is able to share this intimate moment because he is not yet aware that he has become the object of a premeditated brand of observation. It is this type of naivety and innocence that Kurgan is fascinated by: a kind of semi-consciousness in which the child performs for the adult because the child has seen the performance before but doesn't grasp the gravity of the performance.

This dynamic is embodied in the title of the exhibition, which articulates a commitment to love without an understanding of the significance of the pledge that the promise to love is intrinsically unconditional.

A dark and macabre undertone unites the work on this exhibition, simply because Kurgan makes us conscious of the manner in which children make themselves emotionally available to adults, leaving themselves open to an inexplicit form of abuse but one that naturally occurs between parents and children.

Much of the exhibition comprises etchings of photographs that Kurgan has exhibited before such as It's a Secret (2009), which was part of her Scene of a Crime series (2005).

Revisiting or reworking these photographs in another medium suggests that the artist is eager to penetrate beyond the surface, that she is compelled by a desire to uncover the "unseen" subtext that lies buried beneath the glossy veneer of the photographed image.

Her unearthing, however, doesn't produce the desired results; most of the etchings are bland, detached and inexpressive renderings that fail to evoke any nuanced insight into the subjects. If anything, what Kurgan presents are bare skeletons of young people. They are haunting figures that are ghostly in their appearance with their dark- rimmed eyes, empty expressions and limp bodies. Kurgan implies that there is nothing beyond the surface of the photographic image, that they simply give the illusion of depth.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Interview with Johannes Phokela

'Eating people isn't always wrong," reads the title of a newspaper article Johannes Phokela has clutched in his hand as we stand in front of South Pacific Seascape.

Complementing this story on cannibalism is a dated drawing of a half-naked African with a white colonial in his grip. In his usual satirical take on politically loaded topics, Phokela has scrawled across the image "exotic snack" in black koki pen, thereby inverting the stereotypical view of the African as exotic.

Phokela has replicated the image in South Pacific Seascape. It's two weeks before the opening of his largest major solo exhibition in South Africa and he hasn't finished painting it yet, so it won't be on show. But it is a rare opportunity not only to compare the artist's source of inspiration with the final product but also to see how Phokela constructs his art. In true Phokela style, he has included a number of other motifs in the image - such as an oil rig and a ship - which will add other layers of meaning to his painting.

Like much of his art, South Pacific Seascape references the colonial condition, its attending ideologies and how embedded they are in popular culture.

"Even today, there is no evidence that anyone devoured human flesh. It never existed. And let us not forget what has happened in Europe; they beheaded people. This article talks of how it was so wrong that people were perceived as cannabilists [sic]. I don't think you could ascribe any meaning to the eating of flesh," says Phokela, his eyes flicking between the image in his hand and his painting.

Much like a satirist looking for material, Phokela consumes political and cultural imagery and iconography from a variety of sources and, though he replicates these signs and symbols, he places them within reconfigured contexts that destabilise their meaning. It's always a subtle subversion, one that can only be gleaned from a close study of his paintings and the art canon - said to be his favourite source. Up until now, local art critics have associated his aesthetic with the traditional Dutch genre of painting, but it's a characteristic he eschews. "[My sources] melt into the work and people don't often realise it. Generally, I am quite interested in all iconography and symbols. But when people give you a label, you are seen as that," he says bitterly.

He characterises his approach as "creating a pastiche out of existing images. I recycle existing material to come up with something new. Say I see the image of The Thinking Man. I look at that and think that it could be of Thabo Mbeki. I am like a cartoonist in the way that I conceptualise; they use iconography that we are all familiar with and I work on the same level except I go a bit deeper and try and involve other elements. I like to put lots of conflicting elements in my work so that it is not assigned a specific meaning; that anyone can read whatever they want to read into it."

In his studio, images cut from newspapers, magazines or books are sticky-taped adjacent to paintings, and open books lie scattered on the floor. For Phokela's expression to have impact, the iconography he mimics must be faithfully represented. His modest two-roomed studio in Milpark, Johannesburg, is chock-a-block with paintings in different stages of completion. Phokela likes to work on a variety of paintings simultaneously.

He doesn't reveal much about his process, but I sense that it is not a case of fluctuating bouts of inspiration that see him flitting between his creations. When he goes into an in-depth description of an installation piece - Dream Home - describing every detail of its construction down to the lighting, it becomes clear that he is a methodical creative thinker buoyed by concepts rather than visceral or emotional compulsions.

Painting is no longer revered as the sole conduit of supposed high art. But it is hard not to feel a frisson of excitement when faced with a studio brimming with Phokela's characteristic large-scale paintings. It is in such moments that one intrinsically recognises that installations or photographic artworks simply lack the visual and sensual impact that painting evokes.

Phokela is well aware of the medium's intrinsic power, especially the traditional representational mode of painting that reflects reality like a mirror - albeit distorted. But it is those distortions that Phokela is most interested in; he likes to dig deep into art's canon, regurgitating them for the contemporary viewer. Ironically, in the process of ridiculing the tradition of Western painting, Phokela has become an accomplished painter in his own right.

But Phokela doesn't fit the archetypal painter mould. For starters, he doesn't consider himself a painter. His exhibition, wryly titled I Love My Neighbours, will boast a number of sculptures and he is anxious to get stuck into Dream Home. "I don't see those works as a departure from what I have done. I am still doing what I have always done, which is dealing with iconography. It's been a natural progression."

Phokela resists any kind of typecasting. He desists from recalling his past, filling out the bare bones of his extensive CV. Is he the epitome of the postmodernist artist who doesn't want the meaning of his work to be deflected by his context or doesn't he want the story of his life to be presented as the Soweto boy makes good?

Many have found it tricky to resist casting him in the latter mould. For someone born in Soweto in the 1960s to have gone on to study at the world's most prestigious art institutions - the Royal College of Art, Camberwell College of Art and St Martin's College of Art - is an achievement. Not only did Phokela receive a first-rate education at these institutions, he also rubbed shoulders with the Young British Artist set, or YBAs as they are more informally called, which included Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Michael Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread.

"People keep asking me about my background and childhood as if I finished school yesterday. A lot has happened since I left school." A surprising amount has happened to Phokela since he left Soweto; he has become a well-respected international artist who flits between South Africa and London, where he has lived on and off over the past 20 years. He has also built a career on avoiding being typecast; a feat that any artist from Africa values. Initially, Phokela battled with preconceived ideas about African artists.

"I remember arriving in London and being questioned about African art. No one ever stops a European artist and asks them to define European art."

Phokela's retort was to usurp the Western tradition of painting. It was not so much about subverting the canon but the attitudes about African art and artists - African artists aren't expected to be painters; painting has always been the preserve of European high art. "It wasn't about proving anything, it was about saying: 'Fuck you, I am going to do what I want'.

"Back in the Eighties, there was this idea that African art was supposed to be this way and European art is supposed to be that way. I tried to combine what I then perceived to be authentically contemporary African art at the time. But I constantly felt impeded by the directness of questions about the significance of my work.

"My white peers were always asking these exotic questions, like: 'Do you have lions in Joburg?' My black peers were also debating what I was doing. Painting white naked ladies isn't African art. They felt like I was betraying my culture. African art did not end with the [wooden] mask; we have to move beyond that."

Attitudes around African art have shifted, but Phokela is still determined not to be classified by his geographical origins, which has seen him resist participating in contemporary African themed shows. "I just don't want to be labelled as an African artist. I hate it when people refer to me as being a black South African artist."

It's hard to reconcile Phokela's appearance and demeanour with his defiant nature; he is a softly spoken, petit man whose youthful face camouflages his forty something age - the grey flecks in his hair are the giveaway.

But belying this unassuming faade is a subversive artist with a very dark sense of humour. It is embedded in his art, in the manner in which he subverts familiar images, such as portraying a Rubanesque female nude with a G-string tan-line.

"Artists see beyond what everybody sees. I am trying to create a language independent from objective rhetoric. One of the reasons I am using iconic images is that people easily recognise these things and it helps them to engage and start asking questions.

"Let's talk of the most popular images, say of Jesus Christ. He is usually depicted with blond hair and rosy cheeks when, in fact, he was Jewish, Middle Eastern, with dark hair. Not even the Bible describes Jesus as having blond hair. Iconography can change the meaning of things in a very sublime way."

Phokela says his brand of subversion is simply a means to an end. "If I use Rembrandt, I am not paying homage to him, it is just an end. I am more into the music than the artist. I don't think we should build shrines around artists. I am taking a different path. I am strictly into the image. If I see a dustpan and a brush, I try to go beyond [its physical appearance]. I go deeper. I want to stretch the possibility of meaning of objects."

· I Love My Neighbours will be showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until March 21

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In Camera at Resolution Gallery

This exhibition may share the title of a Kathryn Smith exhibition held at the Goodman Gallery in 2007, but the themes it explores are quite disparate.

In Camera is a Latin phrase meaning “in private” or “in secret” and, though Smith unpacked its use in the legal context where testimony is presented in private chambers instead of in open court, the Rosses apply the term to a study of intimacy and its relationship to photography.

Rather appropriately, a female nude forms the centre of a dialogue between the two artists, with each creating a corresponding body of work. The female nude is a staple leitmotif in the tradition of painting and, therefore, loaded with historical connotations so it is interesting to note how differently these siblings engage with their common subject. Their differing approaches seem to be informed foremost by their gender.

As a woman, Alexandra is unable to represent the female form without referencing and subverting its representation in art’s canon. The male spectator is represented by the silhouette of a bust of an older man, which appears in the background of a number of her photographs and then on its own in a photograph entitled Second Fiddle.

This is a wonderful reversal of the old order, so to speak; firstly, the male observer is inserted inside the pictorial frame, rather than outside and, secondly, although he is a mythologised figure that haunts these images, he is a static and passive viewer without any agency. As the title of the photograph implies, he has been relegated to a subordinate role rather than a defining one, as was traditionally the case. Alexandra uses a laptop camera to execute the photographs, which facilitates a level of intimacy that conventional photography is unable to achieve because it renders the author of the images obsolete – there is no witness. In this way, the relationship that predominates becomes the one she has with herself and her own naked body.

It is a vexed one influenced by the tradition of the female nude. Fittingly, Alexandra recalls the work of photographer Man Ray, his famous Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’s violin: a French idiom for “hobby”) (1924), in which the female form is likened to a musical instrument, a plaything. Once again, Alexandra inverts the relationship; she becomes the object of her own gaze and enjoyment, and in showing poses of her back and derrière, she is able to discover parts of herself she is normally unable to view. In this way, the act of observing the nude becomes a journey of self-discovery rather than one of objectification.

For her brother David, viewing the female nude is a less politically loaded act. His photographs of a female nude (apparently his lover) suggest a desire to delve beyond appearances, to uncover the essence.

Though the result – large blown-up images of isolated parts of a naked body – infers a formal reading of his subject, it isn’t a clinical investigation. His piercing gaze seems to be motivated by a desire to penetrate those intimate physical spaces of another; the ones that no else is privy to.

In Close (2008), David concentrates on the soft curve of his subject’s back, which is contrasted with the thick strands of her dark, straight hair. David isn’t just interested in the subtle lines of her body, he revels in a view of her that only he appreciates and knows. In photographing these intimate moments, he is able to hold on to both a point in their relationship and her body – with time, both will transform.

Using a cellphone camera, David has also chosen a low-tech, unconventional camera to achieve his ends. The cellphone camera is not only easy to manipulate in small spaces, allowing for more intimate shots, but, as Aryan Kaganof’s SMS Sugarman – a movie shot entirely with cellphones – showed, it is a medium that is associated with intimacy and technically geared for close-ups.

David has blown up his cellphone photos so that the pixels can be seen, imparting a grainy texture that serves as a constant reminder that the image is mediated. Alexandra allows the process of developing the image – stains of the chemicals used in the developing process – to be visible. In this way, photography’s lifelike representational character is obviated and the specks, grains and stains operate like the brushstrokes on a painting, imparting a sensual, physical quality to the images. The medium becomes tangible.

In David’s work this practice underpins his subject’s ephemeral existence; just as the uniform pixels have coalesced into a recognisable form, it looks as if they could just as easily disperse and scatter, making it impossible to possess her.

This is an exquisite exhibition not only in a visual sense but in an intellectual one too. The siblings provide not only a striking counterpoint on the female nude but their intellectual and visual engagement with photography is also refreshing. They make a well-balanced collaborative team; whereas Alexandra is clearly more intellectually adept, creating more conceptual work that engages with art history, David has a gift for creating striking visuals that are more viscerally driven. – published in The Sunday Independent on February 1

  • In Camera will run at the Resolution Gallery in Johannesburg until the end of February