Cruel and tender
As I step into Claudette Schreuders' lounge, I am immediately drawn to the neat display of objects placed on and suspended above her fireplace. Collectively, the objects seem to offer a telling portrait of the artist.
There is a colourful drawing by Conrad Botes, of two men boxing. Also, a varied selection of hand-painted vases, a West African wood carved mask, two of the artist's own etchings, as well as a small Bitterkomix statuette.
Together the collected objects somehow describe Schreuders' various influences and likes. More than this, they also offer a portrait of an oddly contained universe, one that is inhabited by a small circle of beings.
The point is reiterated as I sit chatting to the artist in her lounge. A Siamese cat laconically strolls into the room, jumps onto the couch and finally slumps on my lap. I immediately recognise him - it's Ben. Not only was he a sculpture in her recent show at Warren Siebrits, he is also featured in a panel of the latest Bitterkomix.
"I just wanted to make work that reflected what I was thinking about, not something that had to be political or self-important," Schreuders explains in her slightly awkward manner, the gaucheness of which could also be interpreted as down-to-earth and devoid of self-importance.
"I tried to make work about things that preoccupy me everyday," she says, referring generally to the carved Jacaranda wood figures that populated her recent show. "Like my boyfriend" - Anton Kannemeyer.
One half of the notoriously ribald Bitterkomix collective, Kannemeyer is both lover and sparring partner, an indispensable part of Schreuders' art. She acknowledged this with the huge sculptural head she made. Titled The Boyfriend, it presents itself as both an adoring gift and a complex portrait of a particular individual. The intricacies of this passion are elsewhere articulated in a beautiful lithograph, simply titled Love Story. This distinctively narrative work presents a host of motifs that recur throughout Schreuders' printed works, including mermaids and sculpted figures.
That this sore tale of longing first appeared in an issue of Bitterkomix only contributes to the awkward portrayal of private emotions for public consumption.
I mention this fact to Alet Vorster, of Melville's Art on Paper Gallery, who offers a useful analogy for understanding the insular, near self-enclosed universe Schreuders' work inhabits. She compares the Bitterkomix world with that of London's Bloomsbury set, that famous grouping of artists and intellectuals whose ranks included the writer Virginia Woolf. The commonalities are indeed striking.
As it turns out, Schreuders met Kannemeyer at the University of Stellenbosch, where she undertook her undergraduate degree in the early 1990s.
"I always think that if I had studied my undergraduate degree at Michaelis, I would have dropped out," she comments. "Stellenbosch was so isolated form the artworld, more personal."
Trained under the sculptor Brett Murray, Schreuders posits him as a big influence. "Brett was very encouraging, always pushing me to find what I had to do. He introduced me to painted colon figures, and also suggested I work in wood."
Since carving her first wood sculpture in 1994, in Stellenbosch, Schreuders has lived a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle, completing her MFA degree at the University of Cape in 1997 before moving to Pretoria, the town of her birth.
Now based in Johannesburg, Schreuders is happily a resident of Linden, her iconic post-War suburban house (with its signature green roof) the subject of an etching recently exhibited at Melville's Art on Paper Gallery. Also on show at this gallery was a series of etchings charting the birds inhabiting her suburban garden.
Having matriculated from Linden High, the blue-eyed artist expresses a nagging awareness of her environment, as is evident in her straight-up sculpture of a young schoolgirl, dressed in green uniform. Titled The Missing Person, this sculpture is equally descriptive and nostalgic in its evocation of youth.
Despite the particularities of working in a tactile sculptural form, wood, I avoid this question in favour of discussing Schreuders' interest in the comic book form. Her sculpture The Neighbour is resonant with teasing suggestions, and in no small measure reminded me of the cruel tenderness of American illustrator Chris Ware, the author of the highly-acclaimed Acme Novelty Library, whose central character is a childlike old man named Jimmy Corrigan.
"I love his work," she immediately remarks. "I have all his books. Actually my neighbour [the inspiration behind The Neighbour] always made me think of Jimmy Corrigan because he is so lonely."
Returning to the immediate ambit of my question, Schreuders adds: "In many ways the comic world is more exciting than the contemporary art world. There are so many amazing comics out there that are still a bit underground, not so connected to big business, big galleries and money."
Now unavoidably a part of this big business, Schreuders has already held two solo shows in New York, both at the prestigious Jack Shainman Gallery. She is currently showing at the ASU Art Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, with a show in San Diego planned for later in this year.
The large Dollar prices her artworks now collect has allowed Schreuders to sidestep the academia, still invariably a port of call (of uncertain duration) for many practicing artists. Schreuders herself formerly taught at the University of Pretoria.
Freedom, though, has its price.
"It is nice," she says, "but it's lonely too.". This loneliness in many respects informs the vulnerable emotional world described by Schreuders' sculptures and prints. Not that this loneliness hasn't been without its creative rewards.
Reflecting on the quiet discipline of being a full-time practicing artist working from a studio in her back garden, she wryly states: "It's probably how I ended-up watching my neighbour."
She is currently showing at the Arizona State University Art Museum. The show runs from March 20 - June 19.
This is an expanded version of an article that recently appeared in the Mail & Guardian, February 20-26, 2004, under the title 'The private made public'.