Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Avant Car Guard: As Gaudy and Alluring as Ever



IT ALWAYS seemed that Avant Car Guard's flippant and irreverent brand of art had a sell-by-date. It is expected for young peripheral artists to challenge the pretensions of an art world they are yet to be embraced by; it's a reflexive response that softens the blow of anonymity. Who would want to be celebrated by an insular and tiny art world anyway?

At least that was what was implied in a work titled Avant Car Guard dive into the South African Contemporary Art Market, a photograph which showed the trio (Michael McGarry, Zander Blom and Jan-Henri Booyens) preparing to jump into a puddle situated at the base of a sandy excavation site.

Of course, such artworks called on the South African art community to reassess its sense of self-importance.

Nevertheless, one couldn't help feeling that such strategies would inevitably seem awkward once the trio had found their footing in the world that they so hastily claimed to reject.

Their motivation for parading as a cohesive unit as a way of destabilising the conventional western art practice where the single genius/artist is celebrated also wouldn't hold much sway the moment they began actively pursuing solo careers.

But one would be foolish to think that the astute artists who comprise Avant Car Guard aren't aware of their flawed position. Certainly the title of this exhibition is an admittance, a response and a celebration of a widely held notion in the art world that the trio's brand of art has become passé, if not limited, by its own ideological stance.

The gaudy, tasteless and provocative paintings that make up the bulk of this exhibition are a wonderful retort aimed at an art intelligentsia that was starting to show signs that it had had enough of these rebellious upstarts. So in a sense this exhibition is emblematic of Avant Car Guard's attempt to retrieve ground, or at least enter uncharted territory and show the art world that they aren't a one-trick pony.

Certainly, switching their medium to painting has helped facilitate a new direction in their aesthetic.

Granted, there was an elegance to their constructed photography that has been lost, which has given way to a kitschy and showy brand of art that has less to do with parody and more to do with caricature.

Paintings such as Roger Ballen and the Fuck Dolphins, Dr Pallo 'Air' Jordan and Robin Rhode are all playful caricatures of figures in the local art world.

They reference illustration and with drips of paint running down the canvases they establish this sense of painting being a spontaneous medium rather than part of a learned and measured activity.

These paintings are (one hopes) purposefully vacuous statements, but they are visually alluring.

Drawing from fantasy illustration, comic drawings and rudimentary Photoshop effects, and employing a neon colour palette typical of Emo fashion, they are securely products of our time. As are these artists - their work exudes a reluctant recognition of their epoch.

The most striking aspect of this exhibition is the manner in which these artists parade the rhetoric of rebellion or demonstrations of rebelliousness without believing that it will result in transformation.

The textual works, such as one that simply states, "Fuck this, Fuck that", draws attention to the lack of intent driving their rebelliousness.

In a sculptural work, Resistance Art in South Africa, they reference a previous generation of rebels who rebelled against the status quo through their art. An inscription or subheading for this artwork states, "your pain was meaningless", implying that not only were their actions futile but as benefactors (they only list white artists) of a corrupt system their resistance was undercut by their complicity.

The discourse on rebellion as a central trope of art is the most interesting aspect of this exhibition, and shows the artists to be turning their assault inwards.

Avant Car Guard are a product of an art world that has rejected the belief that the narrative of art is evolutionary. In such a context there is no need for rebels to ignite the wheels of progress and in a world where plurality and multiculturalism is embraced there is no overlying central system to revolt against.

In such a context the act of dissension is obviated. Under the guise of Avant Car Guard they are able to explore this actuality without it having ramifications for their individual practices, in which the artist is expected to engage in the act of "breaking boundaries".

Though clichéd such ideas about art are, ironically, the necessary motivation to keep artists working.

That the members of Avant Car Guard move between making art as a group and pursuing their individual practices amplifies the contradiction between contemporary art theory and practice.

It's not a contradiction that they choose but one inherent in the schism between academia and commerce.

Despite art theorists' rejection of the artist/genius, in day-to-day life the white male artist remains the predominant figure in the art world.

One vacillates between hating and loving this exhibition. It is highly entertaining and thought-provoking but much of the art does parade a puerile façade bereft of substance, leaving one undecided whether this exhibition spells the end of Avant Car Guard's or has extended its life span. - published in The Sunday Independent June 28

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