Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Popping the Abstraction Bubble

Chloë Hugo-Hamman’s Cultural Village
‘I used to be a conceptual artist, but I am okay now,” read a slogan that Cape Town-based artist Barend de Wet posted on Facebook recently.
The seventysomething “likes” that the post attracted implied that his artist friends have a great sense of humour. They were also in general agreement with the serious sentiment underpinning the idea that “conceptual art” has died or as John Cleese might put it in the vein of the famous Monty Python dead parrot sketch: conceptual art is an ex-art movement.

Dubbing it an ex-art movement makes more sense, because there are never any clean breaks with “exes” and most often while the relationship has ended and they are no longer a part of your life, their influence continues for they have irrevocably shaped you for eternity. This might be a more useful way of observing art history and its supposed movements and counter-movements and it might also provide a more realistic lens through which to assess what is occurring on the South African art scene where a seemingly contradictory mix between abstraction and pop art is emerging. Put plainly, contemporary art is haunted by “exes”.

Like an old flame that has reappeared, presently, abstraction is thought to be nagging at the consciousness of artists. The rise of abstraction globally and in South Africa, might well have announced the death of conceptualism. Artists have been giving themselves over to their mediums as if it is now determining the work.
Those vague self-deprecating and characteristically ambiguous artist statements attached to exhibitions by the likes of Zander Blom or Kerry Chaloner, where they imply that their work is driven by impulse and lay their confused thoughts bare, imply a rejection of the notion that art is driven by clean, calculated ideas, or that art products are a by-product of concepts (excuse the gross over-simplification of conceptualism).
We – art critics, gallerists and curators – have all jumped on this abstraction term because it has helped make sense of what is going on. How else do you describe the bold lines and squiggles Jan-Henri Booyens leaves behind on a canvas – though now having lost his studio he is using digital tools to abstract photographs, footage – or the ambiguous organic forms that Nicholas Hlobo stitches into the canvas? We are so accustomed to extracting ideas from art that it’s disorienting being confronted with works that superficially deny anything tangible.

Within their distinctive abstract vocabularies Hlobo, Booyens, Blom and Nandipha Mntambo are not zombies intuitively responding to their mediums; they are all driven by specific ideas and points of inspiration. Now, viewers have to work much harder to grasp the logic, or they can surrender to the material manifestation of it. And in the online environment where imagery has become fast food for the eyes, the latter option is a more tempting prospect. There is no time to probe nuances, particularly in the art fair context, which is nothing more than a visual assault in which the brain is numbed by the sheer overload of work.
Maybe this is why we have chosen such a one-dimensional reading of the abstraction turn in contemporary art.

It makes for an easy story to narrate. It goes like this: Everyone was sick of conceptualism, became more invested in form and materiality as the South African art scene advanced and a proper gallery culture emerged and it provided the ideal language to escape political and identity-laden discourses that defined the apartheid and early post-apartheid eras. Boom. Now go back to what you were doing until the next “trend” edges into view.
Composition with curtain rings by
Nico Krijno

A recent group show at the Whatiftheworld Gallery in Cape Town dubbed Uncertain Terms complicates how we perceive the abstraction turn in contemporary art in South Africa. Not purposively, mind you. Like most of the so-called summer shows that are staged in this tourist-magnet city, the title of the show was vague enough so as to encompass a wide range of diverse works from the gallery’s stable of artists. Cape Town might have a flourishing art scene and the new large spaces such as Smac’s new Woodstock gallery have established, which appear to be physically on par with some of the galleries you find in New York’s Chelsea, might imply that the landscape is evolving into something sophisticated.
However, there seems to be an absence of people (barring Jonathan Garnham at Blank and a few perspicacious characters at Stevenson) who understand what kind of work is being made and how to harness it, interpret it and package it.

Whatiftheworld Gallery, however, knows how to pick the hottest young artists and based on Uncertain Terms, the members of this group are united by the pop art thread that runs through all of their work.
For starters, the majority of the artists showing work on this show have a preference for working with products of mass production, which they pile together en masse so as to drive the point home.
Think of Athi-Patra Ruga’s Approved Model of the New Azania, a large sculptural work of a three-headed figure that is covered in artificial flowers. Moffat Takadiwa’s Joypad is a sculptural wall hanging fashioned from hundreds of thousands of spray-can nozzles.

Nico Krijno’s compositions, as they are dubbed, are sculptures consisting of everyday objects like bricks and curtain rings. He doesn’t present them en masse as the other artists do, he treats them to a lick of paint – as if they are the canvas – and then photographs them. It is a reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction. Very pop.

Chloë Hugo-Hamman’s Cultural Village, a tower fashioned from chip and cereal packs and oranges, presents the most obvious link to the pop art vibe which was largely associated with Andy Warhol’s reproduction of the tomato soup cans.

The late art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto pinpoints the death of art to the moment when Warhol displayed a Brillo Box in a gallery, a large reproduction of a soap box. In truth Danto wasn’t mourning the notion of art that pop had challenged but rather he devoted his writing to mapping how pop art heralded a new way of thinking about art. For this reason many historians and theorists believe it might be more useful to think of pop as sensibility that has remained a cog of the contemporary art machine. This appears to be the case with all art terms, including formalism.
“The ideological heat that once soldered terms to a complex of specific names and uses have finally turned lukewarm,” observed Lane Relyea in an Artforum article in 2008. This melting of hard boundaries between terms and therefore between movements that were thought to be designed to negate what had preceded them paves the way for the pop-art abstraction. Art historians such as Éric de Chassey, director of the French Academy in Rome, who towards the end of last year presented a talk on pop abstraction in British Art in 1960s at the Tate, are now freed up to reread the history of pop art.

Wayne Barker's Brother Where Art thou?

This also paves the way to claim the hybrid art that is taking root in Cape Town, though you could argue that Wayne Barker’s recent show Normal Man, at the Circa Gallery in Joburg, could easily be categorised as pop abstraction.  A suite of paintings which includes the works Je Suis Normal Man and Oh Brother where art thou? boast  abstract backgrounds onto which mass-produced African objects, a wooden effigy and a commemorative plate of Nelson Mandela have been attached together with words in neon lighting.
Reflecting on what defines Barker’s idiosyncratic approach Ashraf Jamal observed that it is defined by a “playful favuistic pop off-the-cuff quality”, further adding that “he loves pastiche – parody is too overly cerebral or conceptual for Wayne”. The titles and words (such as ID or even his reference to the #jesuischarlie phenomenon) appear to carry some kind of weighted message but the pop veneer somehow deflates this.

As a result, this pop-abstraction combo appears to be the ideal vocabulary for artists to appear to be making art, while making art, so to speak. Perhaps everyone is in agreement that you can’t “authentically” make art any more.
Due to the fact that the Cape Town art scene is so concentrated, it is easier to read shifts or shall we say art “moments” – they seem so fleeting these days.
Its physical concentration in Woodstock is significant. This is where artists’ work and most of the influential galleries are located. It is not a coincidence that this pop sensibility is emerging in a suburb that has become the epicentre of hipsterfied forms of production. The area is positively brimming with shops and studios flogging handcrafted items, where the means of production are not only transparent but are quite self-consciously applied.

The means of production not only set the design but ultimately confer on products their cultural currency. This setting and the ideology driving the gentrification of it seems in conflict with any sort of pop art influence, given back in the day it was self-consciously centred on revelling in mass production.
Artists of the sixties tried to replicate its visual shorthand and even the methods of creating mass imagery/products – hence Warhol named his studio “the factory”.

Despite efforts in the Woodstock design community to produce desirable objects that aren’t mass-produced, much of the wares are uniform as are the centres where these studio-cum-shops are located.  This creates the illusion that everything is generated by a single source, though the objects are created by many small producers.

In this way the visual manifesation of mass production can’t be avoided, it is so embedded in the creative act. This may be why the notion of uniformity and homogeneity has become a signature of youth culture – and perhaps it always has been. This may explain how  a pop art strain permeated a scene that is so closely aligned to this eco-green-friendly, individualistic handcrafted form of production.
It may also shed light on how abstraction can be married to this strain despite the fact the pop vocabulary sought to eradicate abstraction – an inner friction exists in relationship to consumerism.

Why reach for the pop designation when it doesn’t fit so neatly?  Thing is, the pop art term or an effort to claim it in relation to what is happening in contemporary art in this country right now exposes overlooked elements to the work being produced by this new generation of supposed “abstract” artists.
Unlike the pop artists of the 1960s who celebrated mass production, and tried to replicate it within a high art setting, this generation of artists use the “pop” element as a way of responding to its effects in a late capitalist context: addressing issues such as globalisation and neoliberalism. Their relationships to their pop mediums are complex, for it appears as if any kind of critique or repurposing of it, which abstracting it presents, collapses into a form of nostalgia.

The curtain rings Krijno employs in one of his compositions look like they hail from the 1970s. You are left with this sense that Krijno is recouping the past and finding new life for some of the outmoded objects he uses. Hamman’s installation evokes the way mass products have been individualised, imbued with locally-driven notions of class. To township dwellers, Ultramel custard is a luxury product, a sign of excess – hence the money clothing-burning kids who practised izikhothane would cover themselves in custard. Hamman’s work is not quite a rejection of mass production as the hipster culture embraces but an articulation of the complex relationship our society has with consumption, how memories and desire are tied up with this mass vocabulary that speaks of domination but is also quite easily open to cultural appropriation and resignification.

Bogosi Sekhukhuni's Dream Diaries installation, which is meant to wryly undermine the Rainbow Nation illusion, is also marked by a sense of kitsch charm. A small TV set showing a remix of dated South African TV content is embedded in a sort of large silver pyramid, of the sort you would expect to encounter at Sun City – it’s gaudy and artificial in the way that Ruga’s flower-covered sculpture is. Sekhukhuni undoubtedly aims to critique the capitalist drive underpinning the rainbow dream and how it has become embedded and dependent on consumerism, which feeds the fantasy by making it real. Consumption patterns have become the yardstick against which our nation’s dream has been measured.
The relationship between identity, nationhood and consumerism isn’t the only binding thread. It is the stylised language that the artists varying pop mediums allow that negate the kind of social realism that has dominated the art/documentary photography that has been the central form of expression in the struggle for liberation and in the early post-apartheid era when artists began to manipulate iconography attached to gender and race. The pop vocabularly ensures that reality remains synthesised.
So even if an artwork presents a figurative motif it remains an abstraction of the thing it is meant to represent because that thing or the ideas that produce it aren’t real.

Synthesis and artificiality mark the work of Krijno, Sekhukhuni, Ruga and Daniella Mooney who renders a work titled Holywater – A Study in Rainmaking in such a slick and stylised language that it looks like a design object, though it is hard to figure out how it could be a functional one.
In this way this artwork evinces where a pop art language might overlap with abstraction; they are both vocabularies that suppress social realism and rely on reducing forms. The tension in the art of Mooney, Krijno and Takadiwa seems to rest in the manner in which recognisable elements function as objects that are both figurative and non-figurative. Abstract yet real at the same time. The nozzles of the spray cans in Takadiwa’s work are recognisable objects as is the stylised “chain” that hangs from Mooney’s sculpture. However, these elements have been converted into something beyond what they are.
This is the case with Rodan Kane-Hart’s abstract metal sculptures that are said to relate to structural elements of buildings. Perhaps this is also the case with Kyle Morland’s sculpture work.
As with Barker’s art, much of the abstract works that young artists are producing feels pop because it isn’t conceptual or a weighted engagement with their craft, despite their interest in materiality.
It’s a pop version of abstraction: the colours are fashionable – the graphics and patterns would not look amiss printed on a pair of trousers or adorning a couch. In this way, the canvases sit at ease in a superficial visual sense with all the other objects you can buy in Woodstock – a bit like encountering a Campbell’s soup can in a supermarket. - first published in The Sunday Independent, February 8, 2015. 

Barker’s Normal Man shows at the Circa Gallery in Joburg until February 21.