Monday, March 7, 2011

Barking up the wrong tree

It seems rather extraordinary in this day and age for so much attention to be paid to an artist’s bohemian lifestyle. Not only has the stereotypical expectation that an artist should match his iconoclastic stance on the world with a non-conformist life been shattered but in the wake of the “death of the author”, which has shifted attention to how artworks are shaped by society and received by audiences, rather than the quirky traits of the creator, it seems so outdated to be foregrounding an artist’s social habits as if they are testament to his supposed genius.

Nevertheless, such has been the case with Wayne Barker’s retrospective, which is wryly titled Super Boring. During the opening speeches the emphasis seemed to be on his excessive lifestyle and drinking exploits rather than the nature of his art. This brand of machismo back-slapping, which plays out in the catalogue too, no doubt left some guests feeling as if they had stumbled into some sort of American frat-party.
Andrew Lamprecht, the curator and author of the catalogue, does, however, find a way of embedding Barker’s lifestyle within his art practice. It is implied via various quotes from people in the art world that some of his antics were evidence of his artistic sensibility. That Barker is believed to have embellished and fictionalised many of his life’s experiences is thought to substantiate the manner in which he has utilised his life as art. It is an interesting proposition. But you can’t help feeling, given that his art doesn’t embrace any kind of performative aspect – perhaps barring some appalling photographs of black naked women posing in ethnic dress – that this theory doesn’t quite stand up to his art. In other words, his artworks seem quite distinct from him. He is not present in his work – his life cannot be traced through it.

His supposed non-conformist streak is palpable in his mode of art-making in the sense that he developed an aesthetic that could be described as the confluence of painting and installation, which sees a variety of objects attached to a painted canvas. But perhaps the most interesting facet of his work is that he appears to reject painting, while simultaneously finding himself unable to dispense with it. This is best illustrated by his perpetual urge to “deface” the paintings he creates, or replicas of other paintings by famous South African artists, most notably Pierneef. In the Rock n Roll series, for example, the canvas operates almost as a punching bag as he afflicts it with layers and layers of paint. The effect is such that these kinds of artworks appear like a public entity that has been vandalised by a stream of people over the years, who all enact their own rebellion on it.

In a way this encapsulates the history of art, which occupies a place in the public domain and is subject to additions by each new generation of artists. Given South Africa’s troubled history this recurring|feature also refers to the layers of history. The Pierneef motifs are just visible in a number of works, implying that the imperialist gaze and its concomitant ideology cannot be fully erased: it continues to haunt our society, despite our rejection of it. The angry and random brushstrokes that Barker uses to obscure these historical images are thus evidence of his frustration that this history cannot ever be transcended.

That this idea is enacted in canvas over canvas seems to imply that this condition not only has ramifications for the South African psyche but the artist’s imagination: Barker’s artistic impulses are held prisoner by history.
Barker appears to have also become enslaved by his aesthetic – the arrangement of seemingly incongruent objects on the painted canvas with neon tube writing – which, based on this retrospective, has not altered much in two decades.

This is why the beaded artworks – Golden Girl (2009) – stand out: they chart a break from this mode, though the parallel between the consumption of the naked female form and possession of land is trite and patronising.
The work he created in the mid-1990s is his most satisfying. In particular works such as Blue Label (1995) and Black Label (1995), which are good examples of his irreverence and the manner in which political authorities subtly maintain their dominance through pervasive iconography.There is a sense, particularly with his more recent oeuvre, that his mode of expression has become outdated; his new work feels old. Has he become caught in a time-warp? Perhaps that is every artist’s fate. - published in The Sunday Independent, March 6, 2011.

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