Willem Boshoff at Michael Stevenson Contemporary
'Licked' is the title Willem Boshoff has given to his first one-person show in Cape Town, a remarkable fact in itself. The press release and full-colour catalogue detail how Boshoff has been making dictionaries and concrete poetry since 1977. Like conventional dictionaries, Boshoff's comprise lists of ordered and related items. His own dictionaries have covered psychological terms, rhetoric, '-ologies' and '-isms' amongst other subjects.
Like a conventional dictionary, Boshoff's Garden of Words I (1982-1997) for example, is dense with information presented in a comprehensible order. While I'll be the first to admit that a flip through a dictionary can be an evocative experience, a dictionary functions essentially in a linear fashion, almost denying lateral and metaphorical relationships between entries. I think it's safe to assume that Boshoff is not after inducing an emotional experience in his viewer, but sometimes his entries and their presentation prove a bit too monochromatic for my liking.
I share with Boshoff an interest in etymology, taxonomy and language (I don't claim to have anywhere near his kind of knowledge on the subjects though), but I didn't feel as fascinated by the work in reality as in theory. To be fair, I am not as enamoured with political and voting processes as Boshoff appears to be, and this is the subject matter around which he often allows his unusual processes to unfold. In a strange kind of appropriation, Boshoff adopts the person and life of Nelson Mandela in several works apparently as a means to immerse himself in his exploration and extrapolation.
Neves, Nelson Mandela's Prison Hacks and Secret Letters find Boshoff exploring language, history and memory through the lens of Mandela's trial and imprisonment. I found myself a little ill at ease, unsure of whether Boshoff's gesture was a sentimental one or a rigorous and odd piece of academic objectivity.
Boshoff's characteristic clean and disciplined aesthetic is strangely disrupted in Flag I and Flag II. Dismembered plastic toys are glued down onto a surface to depict the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes respectively. Tony Cragg and Jasper Johns come screaming to mind in the face of Boshoff's most overt reference to artmaking in the whole show. The caption accompanying this work simply reads 'Comment withheld'. I'm reminded of a T-shirt I saw recently which reads 'Voted Blair, got Bush'.
The plastic conglomerate is set into a shallow box frame that gives it hard edges where I would have preferred more of a burr. Holding everything together is a mass of hot-melt glue, a strange departure from Boshoff's near-perfect joinery and craftsmanship elsewhere.
In Ostrakon a more sensitive touch is found in the ceramic tiles posed as ostrakons or potsherds used to cast votes in ancient Greece. The scalloped edges and weathered earthy surfaces threaten to escape the boxes in which they are stored and displayed. Those that have been removed from the boxes are arranged in a rectilinear configuration, which diffuses their unruly energy. The names of each of 534 cabinet ministers from 1900 to 1994 are inscribed in an old-fashioned script on the broken surfaces. The evidence of manual intervention and the unpredictable behaviour of chemicals and conditions which give the ceramic shards their appearance are a powerful means of describing the enormity of events which attend the reign of each one of the named officials.
Spoiled Vote is a practically unaltered road-sign suspended horizontally in the gallery's window. Fortuitously identifying four streets, the sign makes reference to four British and Afrikaans personages who made their marks on South African history: Kitchener, King Edward, Verwoerd and Kruger. The horizontal orientation somehow inflates the scale of the object, declares it as important and makes more visible the cross motif of the name-boards. Boshoff repeatedly evokes the traditional voter's cross throughout the show as emblematic of a fundamental right, or as something of which many people were deprived throughout history. This interest is made manifest in Closed Ballot where two ballot boxes, their voting mouths sealed, are inscribed with the names of various electoral systems which favour the rights of one group over another.
It's a clich� to accuse conceptual art of coldness and it's futile to lament its lack of expression. In a departure from the norm though, Boshoff's craftsmanship and an understanding of form and material have invariably come to the surface in his arcane and obsessive conceptual works. Sighted or not, who could fail to admire the beauty and synaesthesic quality of his Blind Alphabet, and then marvel at the sheer size of the task he set himself with that project? Here though, I'm uncertain whether Boshoff's chosen subject matter is able to carry both his intellectual acuity and visual dexterity. Unable to reconcile my fascination with his process and what appears to be populist, perhaps it's me who's 'Licked'.
Opens Tuesday August 26
Closes Saturday September 27