'Clean: An Exhibition of De-saturated Contemporary Art'
by Brenda Atkinson
'Clean', an exhibition of work by 11 Gauteng artists, washes its hands of content and aims instead for the aesthetic seduction of the colourless field. Curator Retha Erasmus has challenged participating artists to work within the formalist constraints of "de-saturation", applied equally to colour, form and - necessarily in the garrulous realm of so much contemporary art - "meaning".
At a purely aesthetic level the result is deliciously clutter-free. Walking into the gallery is like stepping onto a soft cumulonimbus of contemplation, where the gentle materialisation of shadows from a slightly variegated white field becomes a kind of enchantment.
But of course this exhibition is itself self-consciously "conceptualised", and the artists on it are not known for dabbling with aesthetic delirium. As such there are bound to be "issues-based" works. But some of the artists benefit, it seems, by working to a tight formal brief, making work that is both ephemeral and exquisitely to the point.
The strongest works are encountered upfront in the first two of the gallery's maze of entirely whitewashed rooms. Kathryn Smith's white-framed, smoky row of just-discernible digital prints - titled The Forensic Qualities of Sleep - references the central preoccupation of her own offbeat work (her conceptual investigation of pathologised bodies is both impressive and disturbingly relentless). But by hooking the self-referential domain of forensics to a beautiful series of dream-images, all fuzzed so that we ourselves are forced into a kind of investigative scrutiny, she creates a spin which, viewed in the context of her existing oeuvre, hints surprisingly at an altogether softer, elusive inner life.
Likewise, Kim Lieberman draws from and adds to her own long-standing conceptual thematic (the poignancy we invest in the transient qualities of postal mail) by pairing a 1999 work, Residue, with 2001's Experience Residue, placed side-by-side on the wall. Residue is a framed abstract "image"/anti-image made up entirely of the miniscule circles of paper created by the perforation of postage stamps. The idea is brilliant and the work is gorgeous at a purely formal level, but Lieberman also re-articulates the premise in order to situate the viewer in an empathetic emotional space: Experience Residue animates the residue of communication and encounter, and presents these animated leftovers on-screen, in digital form. The visual effect is of shadowy figures appearing and receding in a haze of electronic "snow". Finally, on the opposite side of the gallery, the artist presents two magnetised rows of stamped white envelopes marking a year that has been, for her, an emotional and spiritual rite of passage.
Hanneke Benade's simple, exquisitely fine pastel drawing of a Voortrekker cap, set against a white backdrop in a vast metal frame, is a similarly impressive melding of meaning with considerable formal skill, and Diane Victor's series of three pure white embossed prints functions as a material and conceptual counterpoint to her characteristically dark (often black) work.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the male artists go to some lengths to get tricksy with technology. Christian Nerf's Fashion Shoot - a video of Nerf inviting well-known artists to a shooting range to blast buckshot into Levis white T-shirts - achieves an edgy violence that makes it more interesting than a tongue-in-cheek crack. But at over a thousand bucks a pop, it's unlikely you'll be able to say you got the T-shirt. Stephanus Rademeyer's animated black-and-white digital projection Tabula Rasa is technically accomplished but falls into that family of artistic production I can only describe as screensaver art. The rest of the works - Erasmus's intriguing sculpture aside - come across as aesthetic experiments in fuzz, smoke and mirrors, making one feel more like Alice in Weird Winter Wonderland as one goes along.
'Clean' has inspired moments in which certain artists seem to have achieved the personal best of their careers to date, but where this importance is not sustained, it has a sense of fun, innovation and whimsical charm.
Until November 10
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