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.

In his treatment of folded fabrics, Grose adopts a reverse process. In his close-up studies of patterned materials the form of the subject matter, its structure, is suppressed or denied and the act of representation works at obviating, or collapsing the form. The renderings of mostly floral fabrics are decontextualised images; we do not know if they are the fabrics of a dress or a curtain or where they may be situated.
The floral motifs evoke a classic pattern that suggests a historical link, but as they remain perennial favourites, we cannot locate this formless object. The floral pattern could also be part of an effort to deconstruct, or maybe expand and repeat, a flower still life.

The works are thus meditations on pure surface. "I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues," reads a quote from Richard Avedon in the artist statement. The folds, creases in the fabric, impart depth to the patterned surfaces, allowing the fabrics to appear real.
An art historical canon is devoted to the rendering of folds in fabrics and their role in securing authenticity in the painting of the renaissance and baroque periods. Folds cannot be underestimated. In this work, however, there is a sense that they are like the glitches in a digital matrix that serve as a warning that this is a fabricated reality.

Nothing spells fabrication more than a study of fabric, which is fundamental to the encoding of dress and (cultural) identity. Grose, however, withholds the information that would allow this to be communicated. Instead, he guides the viewer towards the emptiness of the exterior symbols, to a place of nothingness. Perhaps this is why his paintings have left so many observers cold.

He is digging into an interesting area where the history of painting intersects with virtual reality in the digital sphere, and a revived interest in formalism. But these works are maybe only hesitant steps in that direction. He is undoubtedly a "good" painter in the sense that there is a satisfying quality in his brushstroke and his renderings are compelling (does that count any more?) but the surfaces of his paintings are not seductive enough to hold your attention for a prolonged period. His paintings need to be more immersive; larger, more detailed. That is if it is his intention to enter into a discourse on "the surface".
Ironically, I get the sense that he is a conceptualist trying on formalist clothing, in which case the surface only services ideas rather than being the end point. I'm not sure Grose has found what it is that he does - his defining signature.

Grose's work is more intriguing than Andrew Putter's Native Work, which makes a very straight-forward statement. It is an installation of photographs that juxtapose black subjects in their everyday wear with them appearing in "tribal" costume of the sort that Alfred Duggan-Cronin, the infamous British ethnographer, used to situate his then black subjects in an ahistorical Africa tailored for the European imagination. The installation overstates the constructedness of the "tribal African subject".  The work also unwittingly implies that the contemporary black subjects remain tethered to the historical photographic fictions of Cronin's era; that they are haunted by their "tribal" (othered) selves, which Putter has materialised.

The black and white tribal images are the focal point of this small show, turning this aspect into the spectacle, while situating the images that bear "the truth" about their identities to the side as if it is peripheral. Putter may have intended to exorcise us of Duggan-Cronin's photographic legacy, but he replays it. The subjects may have had the 'freedom' to determine their 'tribal' appearance but it is within the constraints of a predetermined photographic project of someone else's making.
Schreuders' Rivals

Adding to the peculiar mix of works at Stevenson is another discrete body of work by Claudette Schreuders under the title Great Expectations.
The collection of new wooden sculptures are of liminal subjects caught between childhood and adulthood. Their foreshortened bodies suggest a child's frame but the swell of growing breasts and the apparent weight of adult concerns that have extinguished their carefree child spirits imply that they are adult beings. The artist statement asserts that the figures are a child's projection of their adult selves. They read in the opposite manner, appearing like adult selves trying to reimagine themselves as children.
The subjects are solemn, as if in acknowledgement of the impossibility of their return. The joins in the wood of the lifelike subjects appear like deeply rooted flaws that run through them and cannot be overcome, even by going back in time.- published in The Sunday Independent, March 31, 2013.  

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