Thursday, May 24, 2012

New Kid on the Block: Wits Art Museum

A group of men are struggling to get ‘‘god’s hand’’ in place. It’s a week before the opening of the new Wits Art Museum (WAM) and men balanced on scaffolding surrounding Jackson Hlungwani’s Hand of God are trying to lower the oversized wooden limb on to a bespoke base. Julia Charlton, the gallery’s senior curator, has to run upstairs to her office to consult a photograph to check the correct positioning of the sculpture before it’s set in place.

A year ago Charlton wouldn’t have been able to acquire a work |of this dimension; the Wits Art Gallery was a small basement room hidden below Senate House. In |this context, “gallery” was a bit of a misnomer, given its carpeted floors and limited dimensions. Signboards posted around the university’s environs might have advertised that a gallery existed there, but in truth it was an undersized storeroom; exhibitions could barely be staged there.
Charlton can’t wait to show me a 5m-long Dogon mask that is hanging against a wall at the back entrance of the gallery.
“No one has ever seen it before, because we simply couldn’t show it,” she marvels.
The inaugural exhibition, Seeing Stars, is simply an ode to the space. Works from the collection are chosen and hung to show off each room, the space, which is why you will find photographs by David Goldblatt located near portraits by Gerard Sekoto. Whatever dialogue occurs between the works will be incidental. “We picked artworks that suited each space,” confesses Charlton with a grin.

It’s a peculiar reversal; conventionally gallery interiors serve as a background for art. Charlton’s response is shaped by years of working in a dysfunctional space that simply couldn’t serve the collection or those interested in it. The new gallery has given her wings, room to breathe. But she hasn’t had time to think. When I ask her what effect the gallery |will have on the art world, the response is self-deprecating.
“Oh, I don’t know if we will do anything big like that.”

Newness has a distinct smell. It’s the wooden bases wrapped in plastic that have filled the air with this intangible aroma. The glass display cases that they will support are stacked against a wall in the main vaulted gallery. The walls are still a crisp white and the concrete and stone floors have yet to be scuffed or aged by the wear and tear that foot traffic will bring.

It’s hard not to be seduced by the gallery’s newness, to be present at its birth into Joburg’s burgeoning cultural scene. With the cash-strapped City of Joburg unable to maintain existing public art institutions, never mind initiate new repositories for cultural exchange, this isn’t an everyday occurrence. And it isn’t likely to become one any time soon.

Commercial galleries open (and close) with some frequency and while they are received with great interest – and perhaps scepticism – by the arts community at large, public/non-commerical institutions carry more importance. They generally have more permanence, but most importantly, in a context where the local art scene is dominated by commercial art entities, they present new territory for curators to make important statements about culture, the state of the nation or engage in art-related navel-gazing, unfettered by a commercial agenda. Artists, who haven’t found favour in commercial environments, also benefit greatly, as do the public, who are more likely to learn about art in an environment, particularly one attached to a university, geared towards education.

The novelty of the new gallery hasn’t quite worn off for Charlton, whose excitement has remained at a high pitch each time I come to view the gallery’s development. She evinces an almost childlike glee when she walks through the gallery. A sense of disbelief informs her awe, too.
Less than a decade ago she showed me the architectural plans in the former Wits Art Gallery. Raising R46.5 million to see it achieved seemed like an insurmountable task.

The time it took to raise the funds and get their plan off the ground was considerable. After a while the notion of this grand museum had somewhat turned into an urban legend, though it had begun to feed a dream to establish Braamfontein as the new locus of Joburg’s cultural life.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What happens when Graffiti becomes art

Lazoo, Mak1one, Rasty and Curio are gathered at a wall at the bottom end of Kruger Street in Jeppestown on the eastern-side of Joburg’s inner city. The pavement is littered with spray cans and Mak1one looks like he is wearing a Jackson Pollack canvas. Rasty is balanced on scaffolding and spraying a robot motif. His dreadlocks are twisted around his head, so they don’t get in the way of his work. Curio is leaning on a car across the road.
The wall is only a few blocks away from Maboneng or “Hipsterville” as Rasty dubs it, but it is like another country. The street is lined with panel beaters and establishments selling second-hand car parts. Their services are advertised on modest hand-painted signs. The area is dotted with dilapidated and vacant buildings so it’s the kind of territory that would have graffiti artists reaching for cans of spray-paint. An engineering firm has, however, agreed to let the group loose on the exterior wall of their property, so they won’t have to “bomb” it.

“Bombing” is a term used to describe illegal graffiti work that is usually done under the cloak of night, away from prying eyes, witnesses. Speed is essential to bombing. You have to work fast and without much light. It is only when the sun comes up that the artwork is revealed – and then sometimes reviled. Historically, graffiti has been viewed as an incursion, a violation of the urban landscape and public space. To some degree, the graffiti community has accepted and even perpetuated this view of their activities – “bombing” implies a violent and destructive act.
Usually the perpetrator of a bombing would be unknown – at least to the greater public. However, within the once tight and secretive world of urban artists, their identity would be as plain as day. Their work wouldn’t only bear their street moniker, or tag, but each artist has their own signature style.
For 16 years, Curio has been spraying his nom de plume around Joburg. Since he started doing it in parking lots outside nightclubs, the rendering of the letters has become more elaborate, stylised and artistic.
“Sometimes I add another letter, sometimes I jumble the letters. I just keep playing with my name. I am just addicted to bold letters on a wall,” the thirtysomething reluctantly explains. “It means nothing,” he assures, yet this repetitive primal act seems so unlikely from someone like Curio. He parades a “Gangsta” street-look – one of the legs of his trousers is pushed up over his knee to reveal a naked leg – but he is a retiring personality.

I gather that Curio, Rasty and the other artists haven’t “bombed” in awhile. Though their exchanges are peppered with this street term, all are professional graffiti or street artists who make a living from doing commissioned work in their home towns and cities around the world. The advent of the internet has substantially contributed towards its commercialisation. Their work can be seen by anyone now, allowing artists to become minor celebrities who move from town to town, leaving temporary imprints. The work on the wall in Jeppestown will form part of the display for the City of Gold, Urban Arts Festival that Rasty initiated last year. Sponsors, like the Goethe Institut, have supported the event by flying in German street artists Case, Tasso and Atom.

Monday, May 7, 2012

On the surface: Busuttil & Poynton

Carla Busuttil’s paintings don’t conform to this new aesthetic that is privileging form over substance, which seems to be gaining traction in local art circles. For starters, her work is not abstract; it’s semi-figurative. Nevertheless she, too, is playing with form, embracing a kind of naïve style of painting that has a (purposively) childlike quality. There is a kind of vibrancy, confidence, and daring to the style of painting at her exhibition, Exit Mode. You can see that her body is driving each brush stroke. Her cheeky art is as much a gestural retort as it is a visual one. It’s as if she has stormed the citadel of Western art and is pushing her way through the pretence and the preciousness associated with painting. The mood is rebellious and extremely playful, though the subject-matter is dark. Very dark.

Busuttil aspires to this anti-conceptualist movement; she doesn’t want to make art that is driven by ideas. “Content is secondary,” asserts the artist in her statement. But there is logic, a theme even, that guides the unnerving group of portraits she presents. The work is united by a common source: photographs depicting images of trauma, war and conflict. She works with them intuitively, producing deformed, lopsided faces with blurred, smudged and indistinct features. Her subjects look battered and bruised; as if a tanker has driven over them and squished their insides. This description suits the childlike crudeness of her rendering; her work is almost cartoonish in this sense. It’s the invisible mark of trauma that she wishes to extract as she pushes her brush across the canvas, bringing to life the dysfunctional, damaged psyches that belie the faces in the photographs she collects.

Just as she observes that she can consume images of violence with ease, so too is her translation of them uncomplicated, rudimentary. Her paintings are not quite fast-food for the eye; there is a lingering terror, horror, in them that denies pleasure, though the macabre sense of humour that laces them provokes a smile. A work entitled Ooooo, reads like a parody of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). A mouth sits agape in the middle of a blue blob in the vague shape of a human head. In her attempt to capture the unseen nature of violence, she seems to have arrived at the conclusion that it is beyond her skills; the end result can only be a mockery, a sham. She is unwilling to “honour” the source of her work, preferring to deride the stock of photography that is meant to document conflict. She acknowledges that photography is limited too and photographers’ drive to expose violence, ironically, smoothes the path to our acceptance of it.

Even though she presents work that appears superficial, one-dimensional, it never quite lives up to the level of vacuity to which she aspires. The form of her work is driven by the content. Nevertheless, her paintings can be consumed quickly. There are no details, no truths that slowly unfurl in the mind as you view them. There is no need to linger in front of them, which is why she offers so many for us to see. As we move quickly from canvas to canvas, amused and entertained rather than repulsed she makes us complicit in this obsessive and twisted fascination for violence.