Egon Tania at João Ferreira Fine Art
by Paul Edmunds
Egon Tania's exhibition leaves many questions unanswered, but the uncertainty one feels in relation to his work is somehow not dissatisfying. Consisting of seven similarly sized figurative pieces carved from jacaranda, the show is disquieting in that its visual maturity and undeniable appeal seem at odds with its politics. Or perhaps that should be "apparent" politics, since one suspects Tania is aware of the negative interpretations his work might provoke, even if his intentions remain unclear.
Tania situates himself in the sculptural tradition in a number of ways. His bases, in the manner of Brancusi, are very self-consciously and literally part of the works, raising them to a comfortable viewing height. All the pieces are hewn from sections of jacaranda trunk, the girth of which determines the work's footprint and might be used to describe aspects of the image. This inevitably refers to Michelangelo's carvings and his claim to be liberating the image from the stone. Curiously though, Tania's lively surfaces, which range from highly polished planes to rough grinder marks and deep channels left by a chisel, are very plastic and look more modeled than carved. One can't help but think of Degas' depictions of ballerinas when looking at Tania's two seated figures.
The first work to greet the viewer, Girl on a Table, is probably the most likely to offend. Atop a flimsy looking base, attached to a wafer-thin section of trunk, is a roughly hewn table on top of which is a naked woman in typically pornographic butt-in-the-air pose. Her face rests almost demurely on the tabletop. Were it not for the fine craftsmanship, you might turn away hoping no one caught you looking. Staying with the piece, however, you notice some disquieting elements. There is a beautifully finished broken mug and shard below the table, and a strange plastic sheathing shrunk around the table legs. Small amounts of paint have been applied to certain parts for no apparent reason. Slightly larger than a doll, the scale of the figure is also unsettling.
The works have simple, descriptive titles, but these too raise questions. Why are the names "man" and "girl" given to the subjects, who appear together in two of the works? Given their charged relationship, this makes one uneasy. The female figure does seem younger than the male but she has the self-possession of an adult. In Girl and Man on a Chair, an older, slightly paunchy man in a suit slouches in an armchair, beset by gravity and boredom. A younger woman in a light dress, its thinness expertly depicted by Tania's chisel and colour indicated by sparse patches of pink paint, sits suggestively astride his knees. She appears to adjust her dress, apparently unconcerned by her proximity to this large masculine presence. He stares straight through her and they both seem oblivious to the situation in which they are found. The gravity playing on the man's left hand, the slight pointing together of his toes and the weight of his thick shock of hair are acutely observed. So too the woman's posture, the gentle propping action of her left foot and the dexterity of her fingers.
Girl on a Bentwood Chair is reminiscent of Tania's earlier work, both in its construction and subject matter. A conventionally attractive woman poses symmetrically on an elegant wooden chair. She is held in position by the carefully observed centre of gravity that runs from the top of her head to a point on the floor between her feet. Her face is finely finished, some details picked out in pencil, but her torso is surprisingly roughly rendered. On closer inspection, it appears that Tania has removed the original wood and replaced it with wood that once formed part of a moulding. Some black paint remains and one can see that the object was once turned on a lathe. Large sections of her back are left undescribed, requiring us to join the dots, as it were. The lightly scorched sections of the other seated female figure are similarly intriguing.
Man at a Table presents a heavy-set man whose brooding quality is reminiscent of paintings of men by Johan Louw. He sits at a table, the top of which is polished, its format determined by the circumference of the tree stump. The table has only two legs and this leaves the work extremely precarious, especially as it is balanced on a latticework of scrap wood. This sense of precariousness pervades the show, the weight of Tania's tools standing in contrast to the small point of contact between the images and the mass from which they have been carved. The heavy, earthbound male figures and well-proportioned, strategically posed females do manage, however, to harness gravity and lend the constructions stability.
One is certainly left with many questions, and occasionally nudged in the direction of an answer. But the works resist being tied down to any one interpretation, and my ultimate response was to immerse myself in this uncertainty while enjoying those qualities of the works that are indisputable.
Until March 2
João Ferreira Fine Art, 80 Hout Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 423 5403 or 082 490 2977
Fax: (021) 423 2136
Hours: Tue - Fri 10am - 6pm, Sat 10am - 2pm