Doreen Southwood and Antoinette Murdoch - 'Eksie Perfeksie' at Spark!
by Kathryn Smith
If perfection could be measured, what would be the best criteria to employ? Weight, mass, length, dedication, professionalism or level of obsessive compulsion? What if one's notion of perfection is simply pie-in-the-sky, resting on nothing more solid than a nice idea? Or rather, if that's how your idea of perfection ends up being sold back to you, disguised by the institutions that capitalise on perfection - the celebrity system, marriage, soap operas, family, God and Prozac?
It's not unreasonable to consider that perfection's closest bedfellow is very likely hysteria - not in the strict Freudian sense, but in the habits we develop to substitute for perceived inadequacies. But without the chaos of hysterical moments, we can't experience the sublime pleasure of a perfect one.
In 'Eksie Perfeksie', Cape Town-based Doreen Southwood and Johannesburg-based Antoinette Murdoch come together in one of the most successful two-person pairings in a long time. Ultimately complementary, both artists' work shows a commitment to realising intent through tightly managed, considered and designed form to the point where at times, especially in Southwood's work, the evidence of personal labour becomes subsumed by industrial or commercial production processes.
This is also one of the few exhibitions to succeed in redefining the cavernous interior of Spark! Southwood's 11m staircase commands a striking visual and physical presence as it bridges floor and ceiling with a fluffy, oversized welcome mat at its foot. Constructed from fiberglass with a cosy knitted covering stretched across it, the work is as mammoth as it is ephemeral, cleverly creating an optical illusion of even greater reach through tonal shifts that get paler as the stairs climb higher, and narrowing as they reach their (desirably infinite) apex. The effect is very Alice in Wonderland meets Jacob's Ladder, an uncomfortable juxtaposition that seems to destroy daydreams as it builds newer and far more sinister ones.
The staircase is buttressed by Black Hole and White Light, the latter positioned on the far wall of the gallery. A 1.8m disc of wood and Perspex, it is punctured by light bulbs of varying wattage, dimmer on the edges but coalescing into white heat in the centre, producing a shimmering reflection on the industrial grey floor. Much like staring at the sun, but not quite as intense, it's almost impossible to look at full-on, preferrably viewed via an oblique perspective or from the entrance some 20 metres back. Given its simplistic form and construction, and familiar metaphorical associations (the white light of near-death experience, nirvana or uncontrollable emotional states), it shouldn't be as compelling as it is, but maybe in all of that lies the path to perfection?
Where White Light is obnoxiously elegant, Black Hole is quietly menacing but totally seductive. A shallow, disc-shaped floor piece, its surface diameter decreases in concentric circles as it reaches the floor. Under a transparent, concave perspex cover, thin strips of satin ribbon in varying blues have been painstakingly stitched, again in concentric circles, onto a piece of white felt, creating the illusion of a puddle or hole of infinite depth.
Southwood's work is all about perspective and distance, but realised in ways that use the tricks of traditional linear perspective to achieve metaphorical and emotional illusions that go beyond alluding to physical depth and volume. In her intelligent and economic employment of commercial production processes, she finds elegant and refined material solutions for intangible but irrefutable states of being that are so often the victim of highly sentimentalised kitsch.
Immersing herself in this domain, and managing to successfully transform materials and objects with strong associative qualities of home (plastic tablecloths), family (children's toys) and women's "home-making skills" (tape measures and dress patterns), Murdoch's collection of work acknowledges familiar strategies of past works and implies new directions. She garnered critical attention a few years back for elaborate but delicate dresses made entirely from facial tissues, included on Colin Richards' exhibition 'Graft' for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 1997. Since then, Johannesburg audiences have seen little of Murdoch's work, other than the odd pieces on group exhibitions. Here, she seems to want to consolidate early work and move on.
One enters the main gallery space through a smaller exhibition space containing two works. Lang Bene Kou ("to have difficulty") is a floor piece made up of a pile of mannequins' legs covered in men's handkerchiefs, with the word "loop" (walk) embroidered onto them. As amputated limbs, they are lame and useless, implying that even if one has the means, it doesn't guarantee a successful end result, but the imperative to continue the task remains. Te Kort Skiet ("to fall short") is a ghostly fragment of what looks like a dress, woven from cheap white plastic tape measures and placed on the floor against the wall, with the ends of the tape measures trailing into the room.
Walking through to the main space, Tuisteskepper ("homemaker") is a floor installation of plastic tablecloths out of which house-shaped forms have been cut and built up, revealing the negative shape in the plastic sheet that created the 3D form. Opposite, three swollen pink hearts again woven from cheap plastic tape measures (My Hartjie My Liefie - "my heart, my love") are hung on supporting columns opposite the main entrance, framing three series of works comprising a set of framed Murdoch paper dolls; rolled up and framed pink rubber bath mats bearing the number "30", the word "passion" and heart-shaped cut-outs; and Mooimaakgoed, a set of cheap children's peg board toys, representing a handbag, lipstick, shoes etc. In front of this, Uitgeknip Vir Mekaar ("cut out for each other") stands in a Perspex box - a wedding dress made from stitched pieces of wedding dress pattern.
In addition to looking fantastic, the exhibition is very revealing of how one's context or lifestyle determines how work is produced. As the press release states, these two artists found common ground in their identities as white, middle-class, Afrikaans-speaking women with a tendency towards emotional insecurity and instability. Where Murdoch is concerned, the pressures of raising children have fundamentally redefined how and when she makes work. Time is not as free as it once was, but the laborious process she employs in her production becomes a necessary space for her to undergo a particular kind of therapy. Where Southwood is concerned, her almost industrial approach ensures that individuation is not carried through autographic or time-consuming mark-making but through controlling and redefining anonymous processes. In this way, both try to create their own states of perfection, or at least imply where these might lie.
Until May 12
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