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.