Paul du Toit at Bell-Roberts Art Gallery
by Hazel Friedman
It's really irksome when a young upstart makes his mark on the contemporary art scene without having fully paid his dues. Take Paul du Toit, for example. He's one of the new kids on the block. Already he's regarded as pretty hot, having notched up enough commercial kudos to put his more established counterparts to shame.
Yet he didn't cut his teeth at any of the respected art institutions before going solo. In fact he hasn't had any formal art training at all. He also didn't do hard time in a garret before being discovered. Nah, he first became a computer boff, where he learnt the tricks of the IT trade and the
benefits of marketing before he gave it all up for art. And here he is, not long out of diapers, in art years anyway. Yet he's already made a name for himself as a painter, sculptor and film/video artist on the global art circuit.
Much has been made of the fact that he is South Africa's sole participant in the December 2001 Florence Biennale - although it must be pointed out that admission to this art extravaganza comes with a price tag of $1000, thereby preventing most South African artists from even submitting an entry form. Then again, he has been nominated for the DaimlerChrysler Award for 2002, competing against the likes of Jane Alexander. To add insult to injury, his current show at the Bell-Roberts Art Gallery in Cape Town is a sell-out success, at a time when most art mongers are singing the recessionary blues.
Any wonder then that his work has been dismissed by many accredited members of the art establishment? The answer lies partly in the work itself, and the place it occupies in a market that might not always know art, but certainly buys what it likes.
His current work includes sculptures constructed from found industrial metal parts, as well as oil and impasto paintings consisting of obsessively reworked variations of child-like imagery. Painted in bright, crude swathes and primary colours, the portraits have been affectionately compared to the impromptu faces that kids make from potatoes and other objects of a playful eye. Inspired by the shadows cast from his sculptures, these works exude a whimsical spontaneity that is absent from his labour-intensive, meticulously reworked sculptures.
The latter comprise found objects retrieved from scrapyards which are sandblasted, coated with automotive paint and painstakingly refashioned into intricate, colourful constructions. It's no wonder that a work like First Gear earned him a DaimlerChrysler nomination - even in maquette form it makes for a fitting monument to the modern, automobile age.
There's no denying the technical skill in constructing these abstract assemblages. And there's no avoiding the surface similarity between his metal masks and the pop voodoo imagery produced by Norman Catherine and, to a considerably lesser extent, the mixed media works of Willie Bester. Of course the products of "PlanetPaul" lack the darkly raucous sense of satire found in Catherine's curiosities or, for that matter, the multiple references and layered social commentary of Bester's assemblages.
Despite their technical intricacies Du Toit's sculptures are essentially light, decorative and uncomplicated. In a sense his work speaks of a post-millennial modernist revival, harking back to an era during which the materials of progress were unquestioningly celebrated and aestheticised. Accessing his work requires neither knowledge of art historical argot, nor powers of semantic excavation, introspection or cross-referencing. They lend themselves to simple descriptions in terms of form, line and composition. In short they are neat, clever, easy on the eye and fun to behold.
Therein lies their strength. Or weakness, depending on which side of the cultural sand dune one stands. It's not so much a matter of Du Toit shifting the goal posts of visual representation but rather of the goal posts shifting themselves on inherently unstable turf.
After all, how does one qualify art these days? In terms of its technical processes, physical labour, conceptual acumen, intention, execution, or all of the above? Or is it simply, as the philistines insist, all in the eye of the beholder? Does it really interact with life, comment or impact on it? Or does it simply self-reflect ? Truth be told, art has become more a verb than a noun, and far more of a subjective question than objective reply.
And when seemingly invincible monuments to modern times come crashing down, and Armageddon might be just around the corner, the most effective opiate for anxiety becomes escapism. Does this mean Du Toit's unashamedly escapist, decorative work is bad art, or highly skilled, market-friendly art? Sure, his relatively early success seems slightly unfair when one thinks of more established, respected artists whose conceptually rich works remain commercial bloopers. But utimately, it is left to the fickle fortunes of life, fate and market forces to decide on the wunderkinds and seven day wonders of the artworld.
Opening: Monday September 17 at 6.30pm
Closing: October 18
Bell-Roberts Art Gallery, 199 Loop Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1100
Fax: (021) 423 3135
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm