Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Art of Abstraction: Rhodes and Hlobo

A still from Robin Rhodes A Day in May

It’s a pleasing surprise. The so-called “eye” of Nicholas Hlobo’s winding rubber sculpture Tyaphaka greets you on the stairs before the entrance to the Stevenson’s Braamfontein gallery, creating this sense that the work cannot be contained. It’s like an amorphous beast, an alien being that keeps multiplying. You half expect to return to the area to find that this black rubber mass has encroached upon Juta Street. This work belongs on the street. It’s exterior fashioned from rubber tyres, incongruently sutured with ribbons, forms this disused blob that would blend into Joburg’s urban landscape. It appears displaced in the pristine white gallery setting, exploding in its largest room, filling the air with the aroma of rubber – a signature of Hlobo’s sculptural work.

The presentation of this rambling sculptural work in this location has lent it new readings. It debuted at the Biennale of Sydney in 2011 before featuring at the Stevenson’s Cape Town gallery in Woodstock in the group show titled Fiction as Fiction (or A Ninth Johannesburg Biennale), where I first encountered it. In that setting, it was buried inside the gallery and the “eye” was on a plinth, thus giving it significance. I was fixated with its relationship to the body; the large mass was like intestines, human entrails. In the Braamfontein setting, it seems detached from any corporeal or real object. It’s a complete abstraction, that invites all manner of metaphors to become attached to it.

Uthwalisiwe by Hlobo
Hlobo’s work probably hasn’t been connected to the body for some time; he stopped doing performance works and evoking the body through both his sculptural works and the motifs sewn on to pristine white canvases, that read like the skin what with inner cavities and external protrusions. Such works evoked the the friction between the exterior and interior – identity politics. Abstraction and formalism are the new buzz words in South African art and they seem to have relieved artists of this initial post-apartheid  preoccupation.
This has given way to a focus on production, the medium, taking it to its logical conclusion. Hlobo’s “beached whale” of a rubber sculpture is in some ways just an extreme, excessive conclusion of what he was doing when he was still interested in the cultural hybridity of the South African identity – part Xhosa, part English etc – and the relationship between tradition and contemporary notions of masculinity.

There is no narrative or political logic driving the work in this exhibition – not in any obvious way at least. This doesn’t read as a glaring absence, perhaps because the work superficially appears to extend from his identity-laden work – it’s the rubber-ribbon vocabulary that secures this idea. And in truth as his work is born from cultural and linguistic faultlines, ambiguity has always been its defining feature. Of course, now it may be lost in its own ambiguity.

This work does place the viewer in a much more precarious position because there is nothing in particular we are expected to glean from it. I suppose this pseudo abstraction turn in South African art is meant to encourage audiences to luxuriate in the visual sensations the work offers, its experiential character and the formal tomfoolery, presenting a wonderful retreat from the self and the political. In this era in which we negotiate our lives and engage with reality through virtual realms, this emphasis on the experiential has gained importance. In securing a flourishing international career, this kind of work obviously has universal appeal too.

Zander Blom, who with Hlobo and Robin Rhode, showed in a small exhibition at Stevenson’s stand at Art Basel Miami Beach last year dubbed Africa and Abstraction, is taking his main medium, painting – he dabbled with photography for awhile – to its extreme conclusion too; that is in stripping it back to its absolute core. He does this by simply placing daubs of bold colours on to brown linen canvases, so that the painting appears like an aesthetically pleasing artist’s palette. In this way he returns us to the moment before painting altogether. Call it pre-painting if you will. Blom has a much harder task than the others; Hlobo and Rhode have developed such distinctive and unconventional ways of making art, that they needn’t worry about replicating other artist’s efforts at abstraction.

Paries Pictus, Rhode’s solo at Stevenson in Cape Town, clearly establishes his idiosyncratic performance-cum-animation-drawings, that are rooted in an urban art language. His work’s language, presents a disjuncture between the art-making tool – usually an oversized object – and the end product that evolves through a series of zoetrope-meets-comic-strip sequences. The motifs magically materialise on the outdoor walls where he enacts his expression – though he is Berlin-based he apparently favours a wall in Westbury, Johannesburg.

In Blackness Blooms an oversized comb appears to have created a ball of curly hair on a wall, though this would not be possible. The supposed art-making tool that his hooded doppelgänger wields is related to the form, so the process seems logical. Rhode is an illusionist, a magician of sorts, though his animations appear to be geared towards unveiling the art making process. However, he transforms this seemingly transparent act of banal urban art-making into one where the illusion remains intact. So what he gives us with one hand, he takes away with another. In fact if he you read his comic-strips backwards this is exactly what occurs. he undoes his work.

Are these animations abstraction? A series of monochromatic charcoal and spray paint works he executed in 2007 that were shown at Art Basel Miami Beach fit this description better than the art works at the Stevenson. It’s his presence, or that of a doppelgänger in his works, that denies it as abstraction. He plays with form and the creation of it but doesn’t abstract it. The shapes he produces and how he arrives at them are detached from and connected to reality. Political intonations infiltrate the works too; like a Day in May, that immediately brings Workers Day to mind. Or the motif of the African continent. The comb for an Afro.    

Interestingly, in an interview with Joost Bosland, Rhode suggests that abstraction is a “substitution of the body… the shifting away from a presentation of the human form”. The ubiquitous presence of the art-maker, graffiti artist in his animation sequences, remains at the periphery and in his adopted street uniform, hoodie and trainers, escapes notice. His identity seems unimportant; he appears like a universal subject. In a way Hlobo too, has been writing himself and the body out of his art, though he confronts us with another body of sorts. Perhaps an intangible one. A kind of collective consciousness that has been growing beneath the vicissitudes of appearance. It’s up to us, how we weigh and claim it. - published in The Sunday Independent, June 02, 2013.

 Tyaphaka and Other Works are showing at the Stevenson Gallery, Joburg until June 14. Rhode’s  A Day in May will show at the forthcoming Moscow Biennale

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