Archive: Issue No. 76, December 2003

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Brenton Maart

Brenton Maart

Brenton Maart

Brenton Maart

Brenton Maart
Installation views

Brenton Maart at PhotoZA
by Sean O'Toole

Two viewings later and I remain unconvinced that Brenton Maart's first solo show, titled 'Temporary Architecture', has quite achieved a true intuitive sense of purpose. It is not the abstract nature of the works themselves that vested this idea but rather the forced intentionality of his imagery. That it is the artist's first major outing excuses his somewhat overzealous energy.

Explicitly concerned with queer culture, Maart's images map strange, unfamiliar topographies. The 'Blue into zones' series presents abstracted studies of physical bodies. Consisting seven pigment ink prints, the images are beautifully colour toned but nonetheless disappoint as photographs. 'Cape Point bodies', Maart's landscape studies re-invented as portraits, suffer the same problem. The large granulated tone of his six handprints offered me nothing, the gritty sexuality of a large cock cascading across one of these images entirely lost to me until the artist diligently pointed it out.

Maart's concerns do however appear to coalesce and cohere is his magnum opus to skin-on-skin gay male sex, Bareback: Flyboys. Due to appear on Tumelo Mosaka's 'A Decade of Democracy' show in the US next year, the image depicts a veinous cock deeply embedded in the curvature of an arse.

The image is derived from a 1990s gay pornographic print publication titled Flyboys, which in turn referenced the image from a 1970s title Gay American Hero. Despite the obvious codes of virtuality at play, of simulation and simulacra, the image works. Its gritty, almost controversial evocation of a taboo subject is aided and abetted by Maart's clever multi-panelled, grid-style presentation.

An interesting musing that came to me after the show was the similarity of gesture - abstraction - employed by Maart and the expatriate photographer Hentie van der Merwe. Unlike van der Merwe, however, Maart's style still lacks finesse. He knows what he wants to say (as his eloquent wall texts attest to), but in my view Maart still needs to refine his use of a difficult visual language.

While on the subject of Maart's abstract visual language, it is certainly bears repeating a comment by Marilyn Martin on abstraction's contested place in South African art. "The mainstream in South Africa has become a camp," Martin wrote in 1990; "if the artist's work is not figurative, Africanist or politically 'involved' he or she is simply moved out of it. Somehow there is no room for abstraction in this age of pluralism."

While it is undeniably true that Maart's photographic practice runs the risk of being deeply unfashionable, especially given the continuing popularity of the 'real' in South African photography, I tend to feel that he somewhat bungled this valuable opportunity to redeem a contested way of seeing from the margins. That Bareback: Flyboys is the first instalment of a newer body of work does, however, provide suggestive hints that Maart's new works will likely surpass those contained in his inconsistent debut.

November 5 - 26