Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Unseen Works: Rooke Gallery

ONE of the most memorable moments in Catherine Meyburg's documentary film Kentridge and Dumas in Conversation (2009) is a scene with Marlene Dumas in her Amsterdam studio, where she turns over canvases propped up against a wall that have not been seen or displayed. These artworks are considered failures. Naturally, it is rewarding to learn that this great South African painter, one of the best-selling woman artists in the world, sometimes has an "off" day. But it also draws attention to the fact that a valuable aspect of Dumas's trajectory - albeit less visually satisfying - has been off-limits.

Just because these works are considered by her to be unsuccessful does not mean they have no worth: these failed artworks contribute towards our understanding of the elements - both visual and ideological - that Dumas and the art market consider notable, worthy of attention and adulation.

At the Unseen Works exhibition at the Rooke Gallery, the focus is not necessarily to show "failed" works - although the implication is that because they have not been on public display before, they are lacking in some way. There are other reasons why some artworks do not see the light of day. Such as in Roger Ballen's case. He is known as a prolific photographer, which means that not all his works can be accommodated in books or exhibitions. Also, there is a very distinct narrative binding his exhibitions and books - some photos presumably do not make the grade for the simple fact that they do not make a meaningful contribution to the discourse he is pursuing.

With Mark Kannemeyer, it is for a very different set of reasons that this series of paintings have not been on show before. For starters, he is not prized for his painting but rather his socio-political comic-art illustration. Kannemeyer's paintings were also student experiments conducted from the late 1980s to the early 1990s while studying at the Hochschule der Kënste in Berlin, Germany, so they are not really examples of his fully formed character as an artist.

They also do not really coincide with the predominant art modes at the time of their conception. Certainly in the South African art scene, conceptual and installation art was all the rage. So Kannemeyer's pseudo-abstract paintings, which strongly echo the work of Francis Bacon, the British painter best known for his triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), would not have found favour. Plainly speaking, Kannemeyer's art was a bit out of sync with what his generation was producing.