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.

The compositions are intriguing too. Particularly with the artwork titled Xenos, a painting in which three subjects are configured within and outside a transparent fabric. This partially obscured view prevents the spectator from fully comprehending or being able to identify the full truth of the image. This is a pictorial device that Siopis employs frequently in the works in this exhibition.

Siopis' brand of painting is traditional in that it is a product of visceral engagement with the medium and evokes a visceral response. This is painting's inherent appeal - it elicits a relationship with form that operates at a primeval level. The intense and fiery colours that Siopis employs - mostly tones of red and orange - further encourage this kind of interaction. Evoking both trauma and sexual desire, these powerful tones blur the boundary between pleasure and pain. The inter-relationship between these two states is a part of the conceptual impetus underpinning a number of the paintings too.

This idea is most prominent in an artwork titled Spirit (2010) which depicts a couple copulating beneath what appears to be a low tent. The simplistic stylised rendering of the female subject's face, which protrudes from beneath the gauze, connects with the dated Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which have served as source for some of the works. It is hard to establish whether this female protagonist is a happy participant; has she placed her head outside of the tent to escape the carnal act that is taking place within? Her eyes are closed but this might not simply be a way of escaping the current situation, it could be propelled by a desire to fully inhabit her physicality and the pleasurable sensations rippling through it. The electric pink gauze that conceals her body makes it appear as if her head is disconnected from the activity that engages the rest of her.

This extraordinary motif is present in a number of paintings; such as Little Flame and Xenos engendering the notion that Siopis is meditating not only a polemic between the mind and the body but the manner in which these two differing parts of human existence are present. In Little Flame the subject's body is completely submerged in textured and speckled swirls of red ink and glue. It's as if the subject is soaking in a bath full of fire or blood - albeit that her serene expression would contradict this actuality. It appears as if her body has surrendered to the chaos and energy that swirls around her, while her head, her mind serves as an anchor. This creates a palpable tension that not only presents an ontological polemic but summons a formal dialogue between abstraction and figuration. In other words such works evince the meeting point between amorphous and non-amorphous forms.

In A child frightened by a bloom, a particularly large lilac-coloured painting (the scale of the work is important here), a small naked subject is dwarfed by a mass of free floating abstract forms and is pushed to the bottom edge of the pictorial frame. This creates the impression that a separation between it and the forms around it are vital to its existence. This battle evokes a number of concepts the intersection between image and thought, reason/emotion. It maps not only a struggle that the subject undergoes but that of the painter and the viewer, who initially seeks out figurative forms to grasp the inner logic of the painting. Siopis pushes the viewer to the point at which the logic has been destroyed or withheld.

Sitting rather awkwardly among these paintings is a video artwork entitled, Obscure White Message. Siopis combines images from different places and times with confessional statements made by Dimitri Tsafendas, who assassinated Dr HF Verwoerd in 1966. At times the statements coincide with the imagery such as when Tsafendas talks of his obsession with a tapeworm and there is footage of an octopus’s long, wavy tentacles. At other times the connection is arbitrary. In this work the text is like the "head", it anchors the body of the work, which moves in and out of view in much the same way that Tsafendas statements vacillate between logic and irrationality.

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