Monday, March 23, 2009

Zander Blom at Gavin Rooke

Zander Blom is scornful of the dated imperative to create art that is new, original. It’s a theme that underpinned his last solo exhibition, The Drain Of Progress, which mapped a journey to rediscover or relive pivotal moments in the modernist movement when new visual idioms were created.With this exhibition, he is caught up in a similar trajectory, however, this time it is the physical and psychological journey towards unearthing a new visual syntax that forms the focus.It’s the voyage of the European Primitivist who believes that the key to unlocking the inner creative voice requires reconnecting with a primitive society that is unfettered or untainted by the evils of the civilised world.This brings to mind the likes of Pablo Picasso and his contemporaries, but the actual physical journey that Blom recreates more closely mirrors the life story of Paul Gauguin, the French artist who turned his back on a profitable career as a stockbroker and on “civilisation”, resettling in exotic locales such as Tahiti and Polynesia, where he created his iconic oeuvre.

It’s probably the last and final scene of the narrative, where the central protagonist is said to have died from syphillis – among a host of other diseases – which recalls the figure of Gauguin and his own bitter demise in so-called paradise. But ultimately Blom is alluding to a mindset.What Blom presents is a caricature of the voyage of self discovery, which is compelled by this belief that in a different environment the authentic creative self manifests.But this is not a conventional parody; while Blom documents the experience of an individual, there is no individual present in his works. His photographs simply feature a collection of musical instruments that are placed in front of changing backdrops that conjure stylised island settings.In this way Blom not only alludes to a Primitivist compulsion but to a narrative that is deeply embedded in contemporary society: the story of the wannabe rock band and their search for fame and fortune. It’s as if the frameworks of two narratives from different epochs have been thoughtfully overlaid to form a postmodern palimpsest.

Naturally the journey that an aspirant rock band would follow would be a journey in the opposite direction to the primitivist, moving from the periphery to the centre, the locus of civilisation where they would bide their time while waiting to be discovered by some head honcho in the music industry.This makes the parallel between the two feel contrived, but it is the friction between these two motifs that enables Blom to destabilise the crucial elements that delineates them. The quintessential tale of the great artist – genius is inextricably centred on elevating the stature of the individual, casting him (it’s mostly a him) as the avatar of creativity and inventiveness.However, by removing the individual from the narrative and employing musical instruments alluding to a band, a creative collective, the tale is not subverted but distorted.Similarly the narrative of the wannabe rock band cannot be realised if it is played out on an isolated island peopled by supposed primitives.At their core, though, the aspiring musicians and artist-genius are both connected to the cult of celebrity and the desire to startle the world with their curious reinventions. Blom’s art suggests that this is a false ambition. He achieves this by displaying the narrative like an amateurish theatrical stage set with rudimentary visual cues, referring to a constructed reality.Furthermore, each of these candy- coloured mise-en-scènes are painted on the walls of a room; in other words, the journey is imagined. For many early modernist painters the journey into the culture of the other was just that – an invented intellectual expedition accelerated by contact with art objects of the other. For those like Gauguin who actually made the physical journey, his bitter denouement serves as a caveat: immersing oneself in the culture of the other comes with the risk of being infected by their supposed primitive sexual excesses.Employing bright, trendy colours and stylised motifs Blom has created a sort of pop version of the artist-genius narrative and in so doing he not only expresses its triteness but he undercuts the core values of high art.He also reflects on a contemporary society where everyone has been enabled through the proliferation of digital media and reality TV to envision themselves as the inventive, artistic hero.The irony is, however, that while Blom tackles clichéd themes, his approach is actually fresh.He has, after all, recast painting as a temporary art product that only survives in the form of a photograph. It’s a clever twist.The cynicism that infused Drain of Progress is still present albeit couched in satire.One can’t help feeling that this exhibition isn’t as visually or intellectually sophisticated as his first solo, but given that Blom’s goals with this exhibition differ, it is not unexpected. One only wishes that his photographs were larger, relaying the overall impact of his paintings more faithfully. Nevertheless this exhibition confirms that Blom is one of the most promising talents on the South African art scene.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Self/Not Self: Brodie/Stevenson Gallery

From Pieter Hugo's penetrating and clinical brand of photography, to Nandipha Mntambo's animal skin and hoof sculpture, to Zanele Muholi's unsettling photography that ventures to reveal what few deign to see, this group exhibition encompasses a diverse range and modes of expression, which all articulate the Self/Not-Self theme in interesting and unexpected ways.

However, it is not Muholi's graphic photos of a woman having her period that creates waves; it is the George Pemba Self Portrait (1987) that creates a frisson of excitement. Placing this dated painting in the context of a cutting-edge group show frees Pemba's art from the limited curatorial discourses that have framed his art for decades.

Pemba's art and that of his generation of artists - dubbed "the pioneers" for their annexation of conventional western art-making techniques - have, until recently, always been exhibited under the rubric of "black modern painters".

In fact, even as recently as last year at Joburg's inaugural art fair, Pemba's art was displayed under this narrow tag in the curated show Take Your Road & Travel Along: The Advent of the Black Modern Painter. Since 1985, when Ricky Burnett staged Tributaries, there have been a number of well-intended efforts to elevate the art of marginalised artists.

However, more often than not, their art is never viewed on its own terms but rather in the context of a "neglected other". In this exhibition, which mostly consists of contemporary art, the Pemba portrait is viewed independently from black modern art, permitting one to view it as a product of Pemba the artist rather than an artefact of a historical period.

Of course, juxtaposed with contemporary artworks, Pemba's portrait becomes emblematic of an outmoded art-making ethos, especially in terms of self-portraiture. Back in Pemba's time self-portraiture was not a point of entry into discourses on difference, race, gender and authorship as it is in the postmodern world.

For artists of Pemba's period the genre was employed to assert the persona of the artist, allowing the artist's psychological ticks to be probed. During the modernist period there was more curiosity about the personality of the artist, and self-portraiture allowed this interest to manifest in an obvious manner.

One senses Pemba is also interested in the formal challenge; capturing his likeness in an inventive way. Certainly not many self-portraits show the artist at work as Pemba's does. Here Pemba is a live subject, which enables him to critically observe himself in the act of painting. Not only does he reflect on his "seeing" eye, but the aspect of himself that comes to life during the painting process.

In contrast to Pemba's expressive representation of himself is Tracy Payne's and Pieter Hugo's very life-like and dry renderings of themselves. Payne's image appears more like a commercial art product than a fine art one, which was no doubt her intention.

The self-portraiture genre is, after all, an overused and trite genus of art.

Payne's artwork underscores this reality while suggesting that it doesn't offer any insight into the subject, that it functions as an empty illusion of self. As such one doesn't feel as if Payne is personally invested in her portrait. Her features are there but she is absent.

Hugo, whose work has always been dogged by the politics of representation, is liberated from that debate by assuming both the author and subject roles. Nevertheless, in his triptych his likeness doesn't appear to be safe from manipulation; his hair and ears take on a slightly different appearance in each photograph. Digital photography has undoubtedly destabilised the notion that photography truthfully records and Hugo exploits this fact, leaving his viewers wondering which Hugo is authentic.

For women, representing the self can often be a politically loaded act.

Berni Searle denies her presence in her series Once Removed (2008) by covering her face with a white cloth. Withdrawing or removing herself from the process is empowering while at the same time indicative of the way women are viewed by society as vacant vessels without a character of their own.

Muholi also obscures the identity of her subject by cropping out her face. Nevertheless the viewer shares a rare intimacy; a woman having her period. Blood is seen running from her naked body into a bath. In this way her subject is governed by her biological or physical self.

Lerato Shadi's performance, Fragile, on opening night, added another dimension to the exhibition. Covering herself in masking tape Shadi looked like a bandaged patient undergoing a painful physical alteration - a dramatic transformation of self. Her performance also read like a denial of self; in covering almost every iota of her body in the beige tape she almost erased her physical presence.

As Shadi tried to fight her way out from the sticky mess enveloped around her body, it became clear that the act of reclaiming the self is a painful process. - Published in The Sunday Independent, March 08, 2009

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Brett Murray at the Goodman

It’s a rare occasion but, every so often, an artist or cultural producer creates a product that taps into the prevailing Zeitgeist with such accuracy – unearthing the underbelly of present-day conditions with such precision – that it makes one’s skin tingle and crawl. Recently, a number of artists have sought to represent the current sociopolitical conditions in the country but this exhibition is remarkable in that Murray’s expression is so succinct.
He employs the shorthand of the political cartoonist, but he is more inventive, drawing from a broader lexicon, which stretches back into art’s canon, and eventually establishing iconography of his own making. That is not to say that his art is coded and requires an astute observer to unravel his statements.
Murray’s expression is unambiguous, confrontational and vitriolic. If Pieter-Dirk Uys or Mike van Graan were visual artists, this is the kind of art they would be making – a sharp brand that cuts through duplicitous political posturing like a hot knife through butter.
It is political satire translated into imagery. And, as is the case with this genre of expression, there is a crudeness to it, although it is not crude in its execution – Murray’s art is the embodiment of technically and ideologically polished expression. It is crude in that Murray doesn’t shy away from ugly truths.
The debased actions and greedy materialism of the new political and social elite are expressed through works dripping with faux gold and the reoccurring motif of copulating dogs.
He presents a sort of hyper-reality in which the moral character of the ruling party (or the whites who remain powerful) are presented in a concentrated form – Murray doesn’t rely on hyperbole.
Some of his work probably appears offensive, but the humour he employs destabilises the sincerity of his accusations. Besides, the conditions that Murray represents are unpalatable and depraved – the democratic era has ushered in another form of corrupt governance.
Copulation proves a succinct metaphor for this state of affairs. It is not depicted as an erotic act but as a frantic animalistic act that is driven by base impulses. Showing it taking place between dogs – well-coiffed poodles at that – also underpins the act as one enacted in the public realm. The copulating dogs motif, therefore, comes to represent a range of illicit political shenanigans. It also subtly references white ascendancy. In a tongue-in-cheek declaration engraved on a shiny gold plaque, Murray dedicates his exhibition to the victors of Polokwane but, like the irreverent
court jester, his art serves to reveal the duplicitous nature of his “patron”.
It is not an imbalance of power that Murray addresses – as has been customary
with art in the post-apartheid era. His focus is the flagrant misuse of influence.
This is personified by his references to Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV, the French royals who lived a life of excess while nonchalantly neglecting their impoverished subjects.
Let Them Eat Pap (2008) cements this analogy between the French aristocracy and the ruling party. It is the motif of a supposedly remorseful Marie Antoinette pictured shedding tears that embodies a false parade of repentance. The ruling party’s repeated apologies for corruption and inefficiency, the remorse of the old apartheid fiends such as Adrian Vlok and exploitative white madams all come to mind. The tears that flow from Marie Antoinette are stylised, thus inferring premeditation.
Murray translates this motif into lithographs and steel sculptures, or should one say, frames, because that is what his sculptures are – one-dimensional skeletons of human effigies. In this way, he not only shows the Marie Antoinette persona to be vacuous but all the gestures of remorse to be empty.
Showing remorse for past misdeeds has become a staple part of South African culture. Murray proposes that its ubiquity has divested the sentiment of any import.
The Antoinette effigy could represent either the current ruling power or the previous white authority, forging a connection between the past and the present and a link in leadership style.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow – lessons in corrupt governance have been passed on to a new generation of leaders. A stainless steel phrase that reads “To own or storm the Bastille?” articulates this connection between the old and the new order. Similarly, the ironically titled Change: Pre-Polokwane,Polokwane, Post-Polokwane (2008), which features three identical 18thcentury paintings of a group of inebriated men feasting, defies the notion that transformation is automatic.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely is the maxim that Murray embraces.
Most of Murray’s work appears to be droll one-liners offering naive perspectives, but that is the point of his art – he is concerned with surface appearances.
He is fascinated by mediated realities – the world of façades and images, signs and symbols that the mass media purveys. After all, for most, the realm of politics is a remote and mediated actuality, an imagined sphere.