Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Robert Hodgins

Robert Hodgins
Arena, 1989
Oil on canvas

Robert Hodgins

Robert Hodgins
England's green and pleasant, 2003
Oil on canvas

Johannes Phokela

Johannes Phokela
The lord works in mysterious ways, 1998
Oil on canvas

Johannes Phokela

Johannes Phokela
The exstacy of Medua, 1999
Oil on canvas

Zwelethu Mthethwa & Sam Nhlengethwa

Zwelethu Mthethwa and Sam Nhlengethwa
Initiation Ceremony, 2000
Mixed media

Simon Stone

Simon Stone
207 sinkers, 2002 (Detail)
Oil on canvas


Absolutely perhaps
by Sean O'Toole

Any show that exclusively touts South African artists to a London audience is bound to be interesting, and problematic. I'll deal with the attention-grabbing bits last. Conceived and curated by expatriate art dealer Simon Mee, 'Absolutely/perhaps' was an admirable effort to introduce South African artists to London's fastidious art cognoscenti. Hosted by the JAK Gallery, a fringe space that usually serves as a retail showroom, this Charlotte Street space, a short walk from Hoxton Square, provided an expansive interior for an A-list grouping of South African artists.

The title of the show is a homage to the Sicilian-born Luigi Pirandello, the Italian playwright whose works included Six Characters in Search of an Author, and acknowledged progenitor of the post-war theatre of the absurd. The notion of the absurd has particular resonance in South Africa, especially if you consider something Albert Camus wrote in his polemic The Myth of Sisyphus:

"A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity."

Notions of reason and absurdity, exile and homeland have always framed South African art production. Thus, even if the works of Robert Hodgins and Zwelethu Mthethwa, William Kentridge and Johannes Phokela sometimes it uncomfortably together, they do share something of a loose thematic thread, if only notionally. Thankfully Mee's show was not nearly as overwrought as these words.

Robert Hodgins exhibited a number of works, his Mr Big monoprint not dissimilar to his Ubu series, which still amaze for their eloquent use of empty, allusive space. Ever nimble, his new painted work, England's green and pleasant showed the artist in fine good humour, the scraggly subject - Hodgins? - showing his middle finger to the viewer, especially the English one if you consider the title.

Most striking amongst the works on show was Zwelethu Mthethwa's Boy on a bed. I have always found it difficult to find Mthethwa's studies of shack dwellers interesting, anything other than colour reportage encumbered by exterior baggage about representation. This particular work, however, finally demonstrates the artist actually creating something more than bland documentary. A large colour photograph from his shack dweller series has been bleached of its content, the sitter a vague outline, a ghostly presence leached from the scene. This treatment offers the clearest statement yet by the artist of the struggle for visibility that defines the lives of his shack dweller subjects.

Having never seen Johannes Phokela's work in the flesh, so to speak, I was intrigued by his classically inspired output. Phokela's works ranged from large painterly canvasses (The lord works in mysterious ways) to rather more discreet drawings (Toys 'r Us), which was not dissimilar some of Kentridge's drawings in the way Phokela inscribes his own narrative onto that of seemingly 'official', found paper texts. Less convincing though was his large oil painting The ecstasy of Medusa, a rather pretentious work in which his classical references are rather laboured and overstated.

Other notable works on show were two collaborative efforts by Zwelethu Mthethwa and Sam Nhlengethwa, a mix of collage, canvass and photographic process that capably melded the aesthetic of these two artists together. Young Cape Town photographer Patricia Driscoll showcased her blurred, misty beachscapes. The photographs are far from romantic evocations of the seaside and have a disengaged quality about them, lifeless without being sterile. Brett Murray's charcoal drawing was surprise. An elaborate postcard keepsake of his Africa sculpture, the virtuosity of its execution hinted at the many talents of this Cape Town based sculptor.

Perhaps one of the most revelatory aspects of this show was not any singular work, but the price guide that accompanied them. This is of course standard practice for any commercial gallery. What however particularly intrigued me was the relationship the pricing suddenly suggested between the artists. Predictably William Kentridge's prints were selling at lofty prices. Interestingly enough Johannes Phokela (�900 - �7000) out priced Zwelethu Mthethwa (�3000 -�4000), Robert Hodgins (�1000 - �4800) fetching roughly the same as Simon Stone (�3600 - �3800). Inconsequential in terms of art criticism, these prices nonetheless offer a salutary reminder of the agony and the ecstasy of the international market.

July 10 - 27


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