Friday, June 3, 2011

'Edgy Watercolour Paintings' Should be an Oxymoron

Watercolour paintings are rarely described as complex. It is not the translucency of the medium that has contributed to this, but the fact that it has long been associated with hobbyist painters.Of course, this is a generalisation: several professional artists have exploited watercolour to great effect, most notably Marlene Dumas and Durant Sihlali.But certainly watercolour landscapes have become the fare of shopping mall art galleries and Sunday art markets.

Perhaps this is why the late Alan Crump’s watercolours come as such a surprise.They are edgy, ironic and intricate and leave you distinctly uneasy, which seems almost incongruent with the medium. We expect watercolour landscapes to orientate and order the natural world in a pleasing manner, highlighting its beauty. The composition of Crump’s landscapes, in particular the series of aerial paintings of mines, is dense and claustrophobic. Every inch of the paper is covered in a dark palette. There is no white space, no reprieve, no lightness. Crump depicts everyday scenes, but there is an implicit violence lurking. Under Crump’s hand the world appears chaotic and in disarray. The angles of his subjects, the absence of focal points, and the multidirectional patterns all work towards drawing you into a dark and frenzied world.

Open Cast Coal Mines, Newcastle, 1994, best illustrates Crump’s modus operandi. In this striking work he presents what appears to be an atomised object. It’s as if the ground has exploded and its insides have been scattered on the surface of the landscape. It’s a crude description of mining, a recurring motif in Crump’s art. His palette is always muted, except for the use of red, such as in Red Giant (1994), a painting of a large building excavation site, or in Earthworks (1997), which presents a tunnel inside the mine. Red streaks line the inside of the shaft before scattering in the interior like pools of blood in the wake of an attack. As Karin Skawran observes in the catalogue, Crump depicts the landscape like a human body. Undoubtedly in Red Giant the red earth reads like bruised and exposed flesh. It is not just Crump’s keen awareness of the environment and its vulnerability that compels this metaphor, but the history of exploitation and domination in this country, which most obviously manifested through the mining industry.

The mining motif has become a shorthand for abuse and corruption for many artists – think William Kentridge – but few have translated this leitmotif via watercolour, which seems to work well in imparting a sense of movement, demonstrating the way the landscape is constantly being altered. This sense of fluctuation is quite prominent in East Rand Property Mine (1993), where multidirectional patterns create this sense that the ground is flowing. It is not just the watercolours that bring this into focus, but Crump’s semi-abstract rendering. Though one can more or less make out the objects in his paintings they are semi-figurative; there is no definition or clarity, which adds to the sense of disorder. In this way he keeps reality just beyond our grasp.

He does this for two reasons. First, it is only via this abstract language that he is able foreground violence and disruption. Second, it is his way |of challenging the well-established canon of (colonial) landscape painting that haunts South African visual culture.In his Kitchen Series he embraces a similar approach. If it wasn’t for the titles, which shed light on the objects of these unconventional still lifes, you wouldn’t quite be able to distinguish the subject of each work. Once again, Crump uses unconventional angles, which almost disconnects these ordinary domestic settings from reality. In this way he de-familiarises these ordinary foodstuffs. In some instances this approach makes them grotesque. The Kitchen Series is linked to the landscape mine paintings. Given that he mostly represents meat, he directs our attention to another form of exploitation of natural resources. The plates of meat, which evoke affluence, are the victor’s spoils.

Crump was a celebrated writer, academic, arts administrator and teacher, but this tribute exhibition sheds light on his deft skill as a watercolourist and conceptual artist.  In the catalogue it is suggested that all those other activities left little time for him to develop his art. Undoubtedly, there seems to be an empty gap between the work he produced in the 1970s and 1990s.

The exhibition has been well curated by Frederico Freschi, who has created several discrete narratives through the placement of works, but unfortunately there is little critical engagement with his art in the catalogue. Perhaps this is to be expected given that the exhibition is a tribute to Crump’s activities outside of art-making. Nevertheless, Freschi brings Crump’s artistic trajectory full circle by juxtaposing his early 1970s work with the fine minimalist studies of Camphor Trees, where Crump once again exploits watercolour, allowing its translucency to express the way time can be traced or observed in these aged trees. In a way his paintings serve a similar purpose: they hold the intangible traces of an alert intelligence that no longer exists. - published in The Sunday Independent, May 29, 2011.

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