Archive: Issue No. 61, September 2002

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Martienssen Prize 2002 at the JAG
by Michelle Ticknor

The 2002 "coming out party" for University of Witwatersrand third and fourth year fine arts students, otherwise known as the Martienssen Prize competition, is this year being held for the first time at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Judging for the competition was by curator Pitso Chinzima, and artists Bronwyn Findlay and Jeremy Wafer. The exhibition includes works by twenty artists, approximately half of the total number submitted.

Jo Ractcliffe, Wits faculty organiser and liaison person for the competition, noted a general theme of subtlety, temporality, furtive emotionality, intangibility and tentativeness about this year's submissions. At best, these qualities are inherent in the quiet strength of the work of fourth year student Philip Harris´┐Ż glass and aluminium rectangular window-esque pieces. Hung quite high on the wall and emanating a soft, fluorescent glow from within the frames, these two minimalist works have panes of glass on the front carrying soft white markings which suggest birds in flight just beyond one's reach. The work immediately conjures up James Turrell's ephemeral light works and California artist Robert Irwin's 1960's installational plays on the fugitive qualities of light and space. There are also the obvious references to Dan Flavin who has forever elevated the status of the fluorescent neon tube. It is rare to see such an elegant sense of pause, awe and even breath in such a young artist's work. I found myself craving a studio visit.

The competition included the usual dose of craft/art interplay with, in the case of third year student Pam Maree, a dark and witty twist. Tea? a colourful crocheted, tea cozy/hat/hut initially appeared to be a statement about craft traditions and domesticity. However, the piece's titillating underbelly revealed itself only when I circled around the back to discover the embroidered words "Is the Pope a Catholic?" with the question mark right near a pawpaw-sized opening. I immediately thought of Mike Kelly's deformed and debilitated stuffed toys and Paul McCarthy's perversions in toyland. The sweet lightheartedness of the tea cozy got dark quite fast.

Some works address artists' reflections on South Africa and particularly Johannesburg's beauty and its complicated inverse. For example, Ismael Farouk exhibited three videos: Ultimate Race, Material Hypnosis and Filtered Vision as an installation with hardware innards spilling everywhere. The three videos depict an overflow of saturated images of speedy tunnel driving and the rate of information absorption in the CBD, as well as waste, light and impromptu barber shops. Admittedly, I found the overall installation more compelling than the actual videos themselves. Contained in a pristine glass vitrine tower, the video equipment has been apparently elevated to art object.

Winner Natalie Western's stop animation video, The Critic is an entirely too long one liner, wholly derivative of so many of William Kentridge's animated films. The piece is an oversimplified parody of the competition process. It depicts a woman (the artist) rendered in the style of one of the woman in Picasso's seminal modernist painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. She stands on a sidewalk across the street from a throng of critics wearing heavy-rimmed glasses , whose only reaction to the woman's antics, costume changes and overall performance are incessant eye blinking and the occasional, uncomfortable hip shift.

The piece does have a cheeky and quirky edge, and Western obviously knew which judging buttons to press. "The joke is on you" theme is obviously en vogue, as this competition follows just on the heels of the VITA prize, whose 2002 winner was Alan Alborough. Alborough's winning piece similarly addressed the notion of being judged, but in his case, turned the tables on the judges themselves, making a more salient jibe at the sense of control viewers like to think we possess when viewing art in a gallery space.

Closes: August 18

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