Tuesday, March 27, 2012

In defence of Painting

It’s called A Case for Painting (2011) and features a young woman about to pry open a case that presumably contains tubes of paint. Colour has yet to be unleashed, so the canvas is black with a few white brushstrokes alluding to it being an unfinished work, a hesitant gesture even. The title of Claire Gavronsky’s irreverent painting is a play on words that evokes the historical baggage that accompanies painting but also the question that every artist is forced to ask before they pick up a paint brush: do I need to say this with paint?

With such an array of mediums and forms now viewed as legitimate conduits for expression, it seems artists cannot simply acquiesce to an intuitive desire to work with this medium without being able to justify it conceptually.

In Immaterial Matters, all the painted works make wry reference to the history of Western art, which immediately substantiates the artists' use of paint.   Rosenclaire – an artistic duo made up of Rose Shakinovsky and Claire Gavronsky –  are females so using this medium has gendered significance too: it was once the preserve of men.

L’avanguardia non si arrende mai (the avante garde never gives up) contains the figure of a young girl in period dress which suggests she hails from an historical work. A faint dark line over her upper lip, suggesting a moustache, recalls Salvador  Dali’s signature feature. Once again the canvas is black, disconnecting the subject from its historical context. It appears like a blackboard, and with white writing it implies the work is part of a “lesson”. This type of painting is thus instructive about the past, a dialogue, a response. Because of this its existence does not require “a defence.”

The title of their exhibition, Immaterial Matters, is another irreverent double play on words, which implies that the materials of a work shouldn’t carry such significance, historical or ideological, but  it also advances the idea that that which is seen and is tangible is less significant than what is unspoken, invisible. In this way they point to the process that occurs when the viewer looks at an art work and interprets meaning.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The mythologising of Gladys “Nomfanekiso” Mgudlandlu

Articles have recently appeared in the press hailing Thandi Sibisi as the first black female gallerist. This following the opening of her new gallery in Melrose Arch.  Media people are eager to declare (or regurgitate) “firsts”; it obviously has a newsy ring but it gives them this sense that they are not only witnesses to history but integral in cementing it. These historical landmarks shift the course of history; erasing everything that came before and colouring all that follows.

In other words it has ramifications for how history is written and read. Proclaiming that an individual is “the first” to attain something in a field, particularly when their race or gender underpins that achievement, emphasises this aspect of their profile, though ironically their accomplishment is supposed to be evidence that they have overcome the limits associated with their identity. In this way their achievements are always attached to their profile rather than the merit of their contribution.

In 1961 Gladys “Nomfanekiso” Mgudlandlu was proclaimed to be the first African woman to have exhibited her art. She earned this appellation after showing a collection of artworks in the board room belonging to Contact, a liberal political magazine based in Cape Town. This ensured that this exhibition became a landmark in the mythologising of this artist, though it was later proved that, in fact, Mgudlandlu wasn’t the first – Valerie Desmore should have taken that honour. So why was Mgudlandlu hailed as a pioneer and not Desmore?

This is one of many questions that Nontobeko Ntombela, the curator of A Fragile Archive, raises. A recorded interview with Randolph Vigne, a member of the breakaway liberal party called the National Committee for Liberation (NCL), later known as the African Resistance Movement (Arm) and the man thought to have “discovered” Mgudlandlu, which forms part of the display, offers much insight into her fame and position in history.

Vigne confesses he wasn’t an expert on art – this may account for his lack of awareness not only of Desmore but perhaps a tradition of female black artists which stretches back in time. When Vigne first saw Mgudlandlu’s art he understood it in relationship to the “Grandma Moses” phenomenon – this refers to a self-taught artist whose naïve works went from being displayed in a pharmacy to the Museum of Modern Art in New York under the rubric of “contemporary painting”. Vigne also mentions that “primitive” art was popular at the time, though he now confesses that that term may have been inappropriate.

A small collection of Desmore’s art shows her to be a versatile artist; her work ranges from the figurative to an expressive style. To be frank, she appears to be a more sophisticated and technically astute artist than Mgudlandlu. In other words, her work didn’t evoke that “primitive” style. So it seems that Vigne and the coterie of Mgudlandlu’s supporters had preconceived ideas about the kind of art black artists should be producing.

Adding to this thinking must have been Vigne’s own political agenda; proclaiming the brilliance of a black artist must have served his desire to assert his liberal outlook well. In an attempt to tease out the nexus of socio-political drivers underpinning this exhibition, Ntombela recreates this legendary show. Not all the works from that exhibition are available for display but these absences are part of the exhibition, allowing the curator to make her research process transparent.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fred Page: The ultimate "edgeman"

The cultural anthropologist Victor Turner proposed that artists are, by nature, “edgemen” or, from a less gender-biased point of view: “threshold people”, which he defines as those persons that “elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space”. Artists need to be outsiders because it is this threshold status that enables them to make art, he advances. Undoubtedly, the artist as an outsider has become an integral part of that identity but one is never sure whether artists simply chose that position because it has become ingrained or whether their activities naturally propel them to the edges. The lone-artist toiling on the fringes of society looms large as a romantic figure in biographies and monographs; it contributes to this notion of them as tortured beings.

Fred Page appears to be the ultimate “edgeman”; not only is he said to be a social recluse but he seems to sit on the periphery of the society that should have claimed him: the South African art world. Jeanne Wright, the co-author of Fred Page: Ringmaster of the Imagination, advances a number of reasons for this. After coming to art late in life – he began his studies in his late thirties – he never pursued academic studies in this field. Instead he attended the Port Elizabeth school of Arts and Crafts, which offered technical training. The authors make frequent reference to his non-intellectual approach, which they suggest in parts limited his work both visually and conceptually. This inadequacy might account for the quasi surrealistic mode he adopted which they assert was quite out of sync with the kind of art being made in South Africa (and abroad) during the ’50s to late ’70s.

Based on the breadth of images in this substantial monograph it is clear that after Page had settled into his almost monochromatic stylised surrealist aesthetic, his work didn’t develop or evolve much, either thematically or visually. The authors don’t raise this point – they choose to dwell on his status as a “non-intellectual” artist, referring to the fact that he concentrated on the formal arrangements  of his art rather than its theoretical underpinnings. They also intimate that Page’s process was intuitive; that it wasn’t ordered to express any preconceived ideas. In this way it is implied that his art making was informed by a kind of naivety.