Tracey Rose at the Gallery-in-the-Round, Grahamstown
by Paul Edmunds
I was in a pretty foul mood when I nearly didn't get to attend Tracey Rose's walkabout of her 'Ciao Bella' show at the Gallery-in-the-Round. Arriving marginally late (the Grahamstown condition, I'm lead to believe), I was told that I had to have a ticket for entry. I waded through the throngs of people clogging up the Monument building back to the ticket office where I was told that they wouldn't sell me a ticket for something which had already started. Some cajoling from one of our party eventually coaxed them to take our money.
I missed a lot of what Rose had to say about her work and battled to hear her voice in the odd-shaped bunker-like space anyway. I also only managed only a short look at the work before I had to leave to arrive late for something else. Ciao Bella, the video centrepiece of the show, has been thoroughly reviewed here before but I can offer some impressions.
The three back-projections sit seamlessly alongside one another inside a long gilt, Baroque-like frame. Rose re-frames the traditional religious format of the triptych, giving it a horizontal thrust. The work obviously refers to the Christian Last Supper, its proportions calling to mind Leonardo's painting of the event in particular. This indicates that Rose addresses her critique more at the 'Old Boys' Club'-like representation than to the Judaeo-Christian myth itself.
Her table is incongruently peopled with diverse female archetypes and figureheads. Presiding at the table's head is the vixen-like La Ciccolina (to my eye as much Courtney Love as Jeff Koons' muse and collaborator). To her left a hybrid Marie Antoinette/ Queen Elizabeth II divides a cake into 12 equal portions and an unidentified 'bunny girl' leaps in and out of the picture. On the other side a mermaid admires her tail and a boxer pummels herself in a steady left-right combination.
Other figures are reduced to silhouettes which change and morph as the meal proceeds. The background starts out a hastily coloured-in blue, has 'Ciao Bella' scrawled across all three projections and finishes blood red. The work is peppered with art-historical references, which sometimes veer dangerously close to derivative devices. Rose's strategy of repeatedly re-framing herself recalls Cindy Sherman and no-one will ever be able to create silhouettes without recalling Kara Walker.
Isolated, these devices could be glaring bloopers, but within the borders of a work so replete with cultural and art-historical reference, Rose manages to add them to her already bulging quiver. All the visual languages she employs, the fictional and historical characters she recruits and the diverse periods of history she evokes, play a kind of social cat's cradle. While this extremely complex work is water-tight, it is pretty much 'art for the initiated', requiring a familiarity with a very diverse range of sources as well as other work from Rose's oeuvre.
The show included a number of still photographs of characters from the piece. A pink-cheeked Lolita lounges provocatively against a red fire engine. Sarah Baartman moves stealthily through the landscape while the still boxing figure allows us a closer look. Her white-painted face looks abused and misshapen and the writing on the wristbands of her gloves reads 'Love Me' and 'Fuck Me' respectively.
The Gallery-in-the-Round is a fairly daunting space. Its curious shape and off-shutter concrete walls cannot be ignored. Rose's flawless glossy photographs, picked out by spotlights, really hold their own. Likewise the pristine projection is seamlessly integrated into a drywall whose placement and proportion somehow allow it to blend in with the gritty surroundings.
June 27 - July 5
Gallery in the Round, Monument