Friday, September 24, 2010

How Artists Can Still Dream Big in a Commercial Gallery Space

With a penchant for creating ephemeral art Stephen Hobbs has made a habit of avoiding commercial gallery shows. It’s not that he looks upon the commercial circuit with disdain – well, not completely – but rather that his interests in architecture and the politics of public space have prompted a natural inclination towards creating work and interventions that exist outside the gallery. This exhibition, his first  since he entered into a serious relationship with a commercial dealer, was obviously going to generate interest; how would he adapt to the constraints?

With his characteristic sense of cunning and humour,  Hobbs has negotiated this new course with an exhibition centred on presenting small replicas of larger grand-scale works that could not be contained within a gallery space. He also takes this idea one step further. Given that he will never make these works, he has allowed himself to dream not only beyond the gallery space but beyond financial and or other practical constraints.
For example, it is unlikely that Hobbs would be given the chance to alter the facades of the Empire State Building or the Chrysler building. But he does have free rein to enact his projects on miniature versions of these US landmarks.

Hobbs transforms miniature models of these buildings or at least goes through the motions of altering them - one does sense that on some level he acknowledges the futility of this process.In one rendition of the |Empire State building he disrupts the characteristic silhouette of this edifice with a sheath and matchsticks and in the other he fashions a model of the building from Meccano pieces and matchsticks that are meant to evoke the wooden planks used as scaffolding. The “scaffolding” in the latter model, however, is contained within the building rather than outside it as is customary, implying that it is subject to constant internal change. And it’s not just physical change: the title, State of Empire, implies that physical disruptions mirror ideological shifts in national identity.

These models are products where an architect and artist’s projected fantasies intersect and collide - architects construct fantasies and while artists are also preocuppied with building constructions they do so, so as to deconstruct other constructions. The colourful stylised models that Hobbs tampers with are presumably collectors’ items and thus also articulate ordinary people’s desire to control and know these landmark buildings.  Because of their extraordinary dimensions they are only partially tangible – one cannot percieve them from a single vantage point. Hobbs, therefore, unpacks the function of miniatures and the act of miniaturising and how, on an abstract level, it plays a key role in negotiating national identity and visualising an urban utopia.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why Artists Shouldn't Write 'Reviews'

Ed Young’s recent 'review' of Zander Blom’ s latest exhibition, PAINTINGS. DRAWINGS. PHOTOS at Michael Stevenson, which appeared on the Mahala website is a prime example of why artists should not review their contemporaries work. Not that I would classify Young’s perfunctory musings as a ‘review’ – he never actually engages with the art. God forbid that he does; he would risk actually discovering that it has some kind of intellectual substance that would force him to write more than ironic sentences engineered to demonstrate how amusing he is – how detached he is from the art and maybe art in general. Young is so post-postmodern.

This brand of writing is not exactly out of keeping with the Mahala approach, where the writers are often concerned with being quirky, amusing and ironic. Thus form takes precedence over content. I suppose this style is engineered to appeal to the youth, who are more impressed with amusing turns of phrase than whether the phrase is illuminating in any way. This is very egocentric writing; it’s all about turning attention on the skills and persona of the writer than the subject-matter at hand. Hence Young's article/commentry is really about Young.

Very often writers fall back on this position as a way of avoiding engaging with their subject-matter. In the realm of arts writing it is often employed to mask their inability to grasp the work at hand.  Because this kind of writing is entertaining it has its place. As a writer I do value this kind of showmanship, have been known to engage in it frequently myself and thus do actually enjoy perusing the Mahala website and admire the product that Andy Davis has crafted.Sometimes this approach to writing works and at other times it feels terribly awkward and self conscious.

It can also be pretty frustrating when you actually want to find out something substantial about the work/subject that is being written about. Such as Blom’s exhibition. I haven’t seen it and probably won’t visit Cape Town before it closes. I cannot, however, vicariously enjoy Blom’s work through Young’s writing. Young is so dismissive of Blom’s art that you can’t help but feel that professional jealousy is at work. As Young expresses, clearly all the boys in Cape Town are in a tizz that Blom got the call from Michael and they didn’t.  Young wryly observes this fact, but the effort that he goes to, to demonstrate how vacuous Blom’s art is, implies that Young believes that the attention  Blom’s work has received is thoroughly misplaced. Young has every right to feel that way; but I do wish he made a substantial argument to back up his opinion.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Shoddy arts journalism and Riason Naidoo's Pierneef to Gugulective

I chuckled when I read David Smith’s story  in The Guardian  about Riason Naidoo who was said to have produced a “fierce backlash” for removing paintings of “the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds” when he installed his exhibition 1910 - 2010: Pierneef to Gugulective. It was a poor piece of journalism for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the supposed “fierce backlash” occurred somewhere in May so it has taken Smith almost four months to report on the event – not that his editors in the UK would notice but I suppose that is one of the benefits of being stationed in “Africa”.

Secondly, Smith constantly refers to Naidoo’s racial profile, establishing this notion that he is defined by his race. It  also is part of an effort to polarise the South African art scene, defining it as one neatly divided along racial lines. I suppose Smith isn’t aware of the code of ethics that journalists here are beholden too, which states that the racial profile of an interviewee/subject should not be included unless it is absolutely pertinent to the story.

Thirdly, I hardly think that a negative review in the SA Art Times is any reflection of the views in the South African art world. The views expressed in the SA ART Times are those of its editor, Gabriel Clarke-Brown. Had Smith actually bothered to interview anyone else in the art world he might have discovered that not everyone shares Clarke-Brown’s point of view. Of course, it wasn’t just laziness, it was strategic; he wanted to sensationalise the appointment of a ‘black’ director to the museum, positioning him as one who would naturally eschew the old colonial artworks in favour of contemporary works thus painting a stereotypical scene in which the new black appointment “ruffles the feathers” of the old guard.    Has Smith actually seen Pierneef to Gugulective, because there are quite a number of artworks from the colonial era?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Siopis at Brodie Stevenson

I heard a lot about Penny Siopis’s new show before I saw it. That’s always a good sign. Of course, most people who spoke about it described it in vague terms, as if it was an experience that couldn’t be articulated. My interest was piqued. I missed the opening night but apparently it was jam-packed  - “everyone was there” someone quipped. And by “everyone” they meant everyone in the Joburg art scene. As Michael Smith observed in his latest editorial  for Artthrob, Siopis is not only perceived as one of the country’s major painters – I think artist is more appropriate given that she uses different mediums – but was an influential figure in the Joburg art scene. So naturally she drew crowds of admirers. However, as with anyone with a formidable reputation she does also have her detractors; particularly among the young male artist contingent who recoil from her pink canvases as if they are the embodiment of angry feminist retorts. Some of the works that she produced recently, which oozed pink and red paint, did appear like bloody open wounds and probably weren’t for the squeamish. However, her work has undergone some dramatic shifts. I recently got to view Scene: Finale (ca, 1980s), which is part of a collection of art from JAG on display at Villa Arcadia.  I hadn't seen this painting before and though I am not sure it is the best from her era of 'history' painting it was interesting to observe this artwork weeks after viewing Furies at Brodie Stevenson. The female subject might still be at the centre of her work but her aesthetic has shifted dramatically since the eighties. Few artists have been able to reinvent their aesthetic  - one always senses that they are defined by it.

Furies, presents quite a different brand of work, albeit that the tones still evoke wounded, beaten flesh.  Whatever you may feel about Siopis’ art these new paintings are demanding.  The surface details draw you in first; sometimes the object of your gaze is a slightly raised transparent form treated to delicate smears of colour. In other works you are confronted, even assaulted, with a barrage of colour that explodes onto the canvas.