Monday, August 26, 2013

Zander Blom's Non-painting Painting

It takes balls to fill an exhibition with canvases colonised by blobs of paint. We're not talking here of small dots of paint in the pointillism tradition, where they are clustered together to form coherent figurative images. Nor are we talking about the infamous Spot paintings; high precision or even drippy dots that are produced factory style by a team of artists in Damien Hirst's employ.

What Zander Blom presents in his latest solo exhibition, New Paintings, at The Stevenson are actual blobs of paint that dot beige linen canvases. They are neatly applied, though some compositions appear more random than others, but largely there does seem to be method to this blob-paint madness. In fact, the word "blob" misrepresents the controlled application of them. These dabs of paint are evenly spaced and colour coordinated. In one work, these concentrated blobs are all beige, like the canvas. In others, Blom alternates the colours, presenting yellow and white blobs. In another untitled work - none are titled - they are in primary colours, and in another the paint is white with swirls of colours running through like an intense injection of a contrasting flavour swirling through a vanilla ice cream.

The sensory, physical qualities of paint are the focus; the blobs are oozy, viscous, yet hard. The hardness seems to contradict their soft, malleable appearance; the blobs protrude like hard chewing gum teased from the surface or tufts of piped meringue standing at attention. You want to eat them, touch them, or break them. They invite a physical response. Yet, these paintings also induce disbelief. Is this what painting has come to? Has Blom or the Stevenson gallery taken this contemporary art malarkey too far?
It is likely that the common refrain about contemporary art - "anyone can do this!" - will be uttered in front of these canvases, though getting those painterly peaks and swirls so uniform and delightful and knowing where to place them isn't something anyone with a palette knife can do. But it's more than this level of technical or compositional acumen that saves the work from being utterly ridiculous; it's kind of poetic too. The absurdity of it certainly feeds into this. It takes confidence, buckets of it, to put this kind of work on display, though Blom has been heading in this uber abstract, formalist direction for a few years, since he dispensed with re-enacting key moments in art history on the ceiling of his Brixton home.

It is not just arrogance, or an extreme form of self-indulgence that is driving this work; its poetry lies in the conditions that have brought Blom to a place that he can only paint blobs. This is not an ironic statement; he dispensed with irony some time ago. "What's the point if it's just a joke?" he confided to me.
Blom's authentic investment in painting is perhaps unfashionable; most young painters these days have a tongue firmly in cheek when they have a paintbrush in hand. His attitude is refreshing, and brave. This genuine engagement with the medium compels you to discover how he arrived at this work you could dub non-painting-painting. He's like an inert dancer in a contemporary dance piece.
It's not that he is refusing action per se; there is movement in these artful daubs; the swirls and|protruding viscous peaks. Yet these marks have been arrested in the moment they have hit the canvas. Blom doesn't want to 'join the dots', so to speak. It is not about bringing about coalescence, creating recognisable forms with paint, because in doing so he would deny what paint is, can be independently of relaying a representation of another form.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Working it Out: Working Title

The Frown and Vintage Cru perform in an installation created by Eve Rakow and Justin McGee
picture by Anthea Pokroy

There must be nothing worse than being the opening speaker at an exhibition that isn't about anything. Such was the tricky position the esteemed public academic Achille Mbembe found himself in a few weeks ago at the opening of Working Title at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg.  In the absence of any obvious binding theme at this exhibition, Mbembe did what anyone in his position would do and talked about the absence of content, which was couched in a discussion about form, a theme he has been driving at the recent Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism.

Prompted by so many artists choosing to luxuriate in or re-engage with form - opposed to, say, ideas as per the conceptualist compulsion - discussions around form have become pressing. Nevertheless, the artists embracing this aesthetically-driven turn weren't on this show - it has to some degree been limited to Cape Town, which is also characterised by a frightening number of "curated" exhibitions without a solid framing concept. There's a resistance around framing the work of young artists; is no one willing to put their head on the block, has curating become confused with project management or has this fixation with form obviated the need for thematic shows altogether?

With a well-advertised after-party boasting The Brother Moves On and Mbembe employed to lend some intellectual credibility, the gallery seemed keen to make a big statement with Working Title.
Drawing attention to the lack of content that may be driving this contemporary fixation with form, Mbembe didn't quite play ball.

A number of works pointed to the condition he outlined in his distinctive academic parlance.
Most obviously was MJ Turpin's Void, a black canvas with the word spray-painted in green across it. This is perhaps an overstated rendition of what Zander Blom and Jan Henri Booyens were exploring when they first entered the scene and developed a nihilistic obsession with the supposed "end of painting" that high modernism seemed to announce, and the peculiar conditions of making art on the fringes of the West. Turpin's work is a hipster version of this; a quick, makeshift response embracing a street vernacular. In other words, the work exudes an emptiness, a vacancy that it is a product of, in itself. His other two illustrative prints, Time Machine I and II, evoke a similar vibe.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The 'Other' Art Fair: Turbine Art Fair

David Koloane peruses the Bag Factory's stand pic by Debbie Yazbek

Newtown should have always been home to an art fair. This idea isn’t just rooted in Joburgers’ insistence that their primary identity is linked to the inner city, or the now much-mooted notion that this area is a cultural precinct. But they were given to believe this would be the case when the Joburg Art Fair’s creator, Ross Douglas of Artlogic, waxed lyrical about art fostering a closer connection to the inner city at the opening of a screening of William Kentridge’s work in the city – the event that propelled Ross into the art world. Instead, when the time came, Artlogic opted to stage the Joburg Art fair in the sterile Sandton Convention Centre, located in a suburb without any link to the arts. This has contributed to the fair’s already commercial mainstream slant, though presumably this “safe” setting has worked at attracting a new audience more au fait with mall culture than contemporary art. Predictably, those in the art world haven’t relished the location; the bright lights, the associations with a “convention centre” and its proximity to the mall, somehow “cheapens” art.

Given these attitudes, the inaugural Turbine Art Fair, held last weekend in the über cool titular building in Newtown, should have been embraced with gusto by the art fraternity. The building, after all, epitomises Joburg’s emerging industrial-chic aesthetic that is mushrooming in Maboneng and Braamfontein – both locales for the artistically inclined. Yet, the usual art crowd; artists, art critics and fashionable gallerinas largely stayed away from this event.

Their ambivalence is related to the fact that the accepted reliable purveyors of contemporary art with a capital “C” – such as Goodman and Stevenson – weren’t participating in this new art fair. The majority of the galleries at the Turbine Art Fair – except for Art on Paper, Circa (part of Everard Read) and David Krut – are those rumoured to have been rejected by Artlogic as viable participants of their grand annual art bazaar. A lack of financial clout (the stands are pricey) and profile has been the barrier for some art dealers, for others their products don’t evince an understanding of what contemporary art is, or should aspire to be, despite the slipperiness of its defining characteristics.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Games Artists Play: Performance and Failure

Stern's Stutter pic by Christo Doherty

Once inside the Wits Art Museum, it’s an unexpected relief to be confronted with what appears to be large blank canvases on the gallery walls. This may have something to do with having waded through a cacophony of studenty-art at the exhibition of the work by the long-listed candidates for the Absa L’atelier Award earlier in the week.

That experience alone could test anyone’s desire to be an art critic, though ironically such “bad” (read: lame, contemporary art-by-numbers) work affirms the need for critics – someone has to outright reject it if competition adjudicators can’t be relied upon to do so.

At Meaning Motion, a joint exhibition by Tegan Bristow and Nathaniel Stern, the viewing experience seems to rest in the hands of the viewer, rather than the artist. This could be said to be the case any time you observe an artwork but in the context of this show, it’s not just how you look and interpret it that will shape your experience but how you move. You have to stand close to the screens (they appear like large canvases) to trigger the technology that facilitates the interactive work and most of the works rely on your physical gestures to determine how the images, signs, or letters, in the case of Stern’s work, are animated.
This means the work relies on your presence to exist, to have some sort of visual life. The moment you step away from the screen, the work becomes dormant.

This is an attractive idea for viewers, especially critics, because it means you can silence or end the work at will. In this way the artwork is not imposed upon you, you choose when, and for how long, you want to engage with it.

This isn’t usually an option when viewing conventional art shows or performance art. The latter relies on this; performance art doesn’t only test the endurance levels of the performer but the viewer too. Enduring something as it takes place live is vital in our understanding of an embodied experience – that is gaining knowledge through an awareness of our bodies. And this should be more than feeling the back of a chair stabbing your back.

Stern and Bristow take this element of performance art one step further by jolting viewers out of their comfortable passive positions and encouraging them to feel the experience of looking and making, thus it is a kind of embodied observation and interaction that attempts to blur the boundary between viewer and participant. In a sense you are simply watching a self-reflection that has been mediated by different computer programmes written by the artists.

Bristow's Unsaid pic by Christo Doherty
The underlying premise of this show is to generate a set of images with your body, turning you into an involuntary performance artist of sorts, though the intended meaning of the work, the outcome and structure, has been determined by Stern and Bristow. So, it’s an illusion of control that they are really offering, under the guise of free will or interactivity. This idea is particularly pertinent to Bristow’s Unsaid, which appears to be set up for a participant to express themselves: a microphone is placed in front of a screen. However, as you approach the microphone a black square pops up over your face on the screen, erasing your identity and the words “left it unsaid” appear in the box.