Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Looking into Marikana: Mary Wafer

Crowd I

The images documenting the strikes and the tragedy that followed at Marikana were subject to an intense form of scrutiny. Initially this was for pragmatic reasons;  via mediated photographic and filmed footage, supplemented and supported by textual accounts, that appeared in the mainstream press or the internet, the majority were able to grasp the tragic events that unfurled at the Lonmin mine near Rustenburg.
As we studied these images, and new images emerged that called into question the police’s conduct and ethics, our gaze intensified as we searched for new evidence or  suppressed facts they might contain.
There was a sense that these images were clues to greater truths beyond the visual realm. This had something to do with the fact that the events were quickly read as symbolic not only of a growing discontent among an exploited and impoverished proletariat, but with Cyril Ramaphosa, aligned to Lonmin, the employers, it evoked the perceived betrayal of the struggle ideals by the country’s new elite.

Our ugly past reverberated through the police’s brutality and the violent actions of the miners. As we surveyed the scenes on this rural landscape, we were, are – the Marikana Commission of Inquiry has yet to be completed – transfixed by the possibility that they function as a window to our past, present and future.
In other words, our gaze is driven by a desire to see beyond, through and around what these images present.
Mary Wafer, more or less, attempts to perform this act in her exhibition Mine. Largely, Wafer works from existing representations documenting events around the massacre and the site itself, though it is stated that she visited it too, perhaps in an effort to reconcile the place with depictions of it.

Through painting she assumes to navigate or generate other kinds of visual representations, where the cold, hard facts, the straight edges of the journalistic mode, have been upturned in favour of a semi-abstract language. It is not complete abstraction; you can still identify the dark figures of the miners crowded together on the koppie in the Crowd series. In fact, in the monochromatic rendering titled Crowd I, the dark silhouettes of seated miners is the only motif on the canvas.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Studio Time: Pondering "productive procrastination" with Nerf/Kentridge /Soyinka/Sellars

Christian Nerf working inside Goethe on Main
pic by: Brett Rubin

One Sunday, during the popular Arts On Main market at Maboneng, some visitors wandered into Goethe-on-Main looking for food. This wasn’t altogether surprising. With a large cardboard handwritten sign hanging at the entrance boasting the show’s title, Things are Odd, it appeared like a makeshift shop – an extension of the market. In a way, Christian Nerf was delighted that this misinterpretation occurred; he revels in rewriting the function of a gallery and blurring the boundaries between art and life.

It’s not quite an anarchic impulse, but more about transforming a space to suit his idiosyncratic needs. For Nerf galleries, rooms in suburban homes, even seats on an airplane or long-distance buses have become home to his itinerant studios. He treats these diverse settings equally, thereby undercutting the gallery’s status. They are not venues to exhibit work but to make work, a place for an artist to inhabit, rather than occupy fleetingly.

“The idea of arriving here putting some things up on the wall and walking out and leaving it was unthinkable,” he says. The gallery should be a living, breathing space, a place of action rather than (detached) meditation. This facilitates interaction, between Nerf and visitors, a rarity in the rarefied art setting. Whether this has enriched his practice is uncertain, but it has made for some unexpected exchanges with people unfamiliar with contemporary art.
A close up of one of Nerf's attempt to "draw with obstacles"
pic by Brett Rubin

For the duration of his show, Nerf spent his days in the gallery, making work, experimenting and reading – I spot a copy of Susan Sontag’s seminal On Photography on a shelf. On the occasions he worked through the night, he slept on a thin mattress in the corner of the gallery. This makeshift bed appears to be part of what could be termed an installation of sorts, though, of course, it has no meaning other than rooting the space as a living space rather than just a gallery. But because it is a gallery, a table populated by tubes of paint, brushes, and a beer bottle, everything in it is subject to the kind of scrutiny that may be undeserving given they are everyday objects. But there are other kinds of objects in the space that look as ordinary but aren’t – if you inspect them closely or become aware of their history. Like a torn vest hanging from a nail.
It’s a remnant from a phase when Nerf went out and “shot” fashion objects, not with a camera but with a weapon that would destroy the surface. There are also more recognisable art objects such as large white papers with colourful painted lines. They are not finished works, more like preparations for something, or just experiments in of themselves.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mixed Messages: Ian Grose, Andrew Putter and Claudette Schreuders at Stevenson

Dissimulation (Tulips) (2012).

Since winning the Absa L'Atelier award in 2011 for a triptych dubbed Colour, Separation, Ian Grose became hot property. At the opening of Notes, a show presenting work from his residency at the Cité Internationale Des Arts in Paris at the Absa Gallery in Joburg earlier this year, his solo at the Stevenson was cited as further proof of his rapid ascendance.

The artworks seemed to contradict this; they were an underwhelming collection of small paintings of banal subjects - portraits of friends and Cape Town landmarks. While they were tagged as painterly "notes", underscoring that they weren't what the artist considered resolved works, they seemed to lack the charm of spontaneous disjointed ideas. I was left to conclude that the diminutive scale of the paintings had prompted the exhibition's title.

New Paintings, the title of his Stevenson show, may be bland but at least it's non-descriptiveness doesn't generate any expectations. Presumably, this wasn't the motivation; it is more likely the diverse mix of paintings aren't unified by any underlying ideas - unless you can find a way to link studies of folded fabric, flower still lifes and an imploding building.

Some of the paintings, however, evoke a sense of 'collapse' . This idea doesn't manifest in a predictable painterly sort of manner - through the deconstruction or abstraction of form - but is suggested through Grose's choice of subjects and how he isolates them. The studies of imploding buildings in the diptych titled The reconstruction of Pruitt-Igoe map the dissolution of a structure in an obvious way, though the title suggests that through his rendering of the well-documented implosion of this infamous urban housing project in the US, he is reversing the process. In other words, the act of representation is one of reconstitution. So it is that a famously non-existent building is rebuilt via a painting. The work brings to mind the video work Empire (2002) by Kendell Geers in which he replays the implosion of the Twin Towers - - also incidentally designed by the Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki, who was responsible for the Pruitt-Igoe - backwards so that its annihilation is reversed.