Waiting for Godot with Wayne
by Sean O'Toole
Do a search for the name Wayne Barker in Sue Williamson's article 'South African Art in the Nineties'. His name will pop up repeatedly: the Famous International Gallery (aka The FIG); that 'Laager' exhibition, literally perched on the fringes of the inaugural Johannesburg Biennale; and also 'Scurvy', his influential curatorial initiative at the Castle, with Lisa Brice and Brett Murray ranking amongst its participants. What swagger, what poise, what promise by an artist gifted with so much enthusiasm and an almost intuitive grasp of the colloquial.
Which is not to imply that Wayne Barker has lost any of these qualities. The Mayor of Troyeville, as some have affectionately dubbed Barker, has lost none of his charm as artist. He still produces works that lovingly reinterpret Pierneef; his abstract swathes of paint are still complemented by the swirling delirium of neon; and those vernacular icons and local brand symbols, they still form central motifs in his work. Yes, all those highly idiosyncratic 'Barkerisms' - to loan a phrase coined by Kathryn Smith - still predominate.
I suppose some might find this sense of static disappointing; I personally was conflicted - like Robert de Niro in 'Analyse This'. Confronted with examples of Barker's afro-pop art in the early 90s, I was never sure what the hell to make of it. Snuff brand symbols on canvass? Now post the logo, and those heady days of Troyeville being the centre of an after dark cultural renaissance, Wayne Barker's work makes a lot more sense to me. He was onto something back then, him with his odd fascination for Coke symbols while the rest of us were contented in knowing the enemy was someone with the surname Botha who had been banished to George.
But now that the myth of the brand has been exploded, its demise trumpeted by pop journalists writing for trendy lifestyle magazines, the searing subtext to Barker's art seems somewhat hollowed out, dare I say lost. Coke is evil: so what, everyone still drinks it. Which might explain why Barker has somehow floated adrift, not able to make the next step, one that has seen his contemporaries successfully negotiate the difficult honeymoon years of 1990-1999, some even going on to win prestigious art competitions.
Of course it is very easy to dismiss Wayne Barker as a horse that also ran, to characterise him as a painter (with a penchant for excess) trapped in an endless cycle of showing his work in those up-and-coming galleries, never able to make the transition to something bigger. But I have always had a certain soft spot for Wayne's Barker's paintings, partly because I like Pierneef, but largely because his art has always given me a strong sense of place, home, Five Roses tea.
Nostalgia, however, is an imprecise tool to bring to bear in criticism. Judging from this show, Wayne Barker is at an impasse, like most of us aging hipsters shaped by the fast receding jol that was the 90s. The dilemma: adapt or die, because more of the same is just repetition, and repetition is Waiting for Godot, which is pretending that we don't live in the aftermath of god, apartheid, the brand. That life is here. Now. In the sunlight.
Opens: April 5
Closes: April 25
Art on Paper, 8 Main Road, Melville (next to Outer Limits bookshop)
Tel: 011 726 2234
Hours: Tues - Sat 10am - 5pm