Bruce Arnott at the Irma Stern Museum
by Kim Gurney
Visual art exhibitions often labour under reams of academic pretensions intended to ground the works in a theoretical framework of 'high art'. Sometimes, such lengthy justifications provide a deeper appreciation of the work, but more often they only serve to highlight an apparent disparity between conceptual intent and its manifestation. In the sculpture of Bruce Arnott, the reverse is true. The artworks so strongly speak for themselves that any theoretical elaboration only adds resonance.
Arnott is not short of academic expertise. He is well known for his vast inspirational references and famously forges his artworks in a cerebral kiln of wide-ranging historical knowledge.
Arnott also happens to be Professor Emeritus at UCT. His inaugural lecture last year was a mind-boggling immersion in references and knowledge, quite overwhelming in its depth. 'Shaping Ideas: The Visual Formation of Meaning' was a whistle-stop tour of sculpture history, which will be published later this year.
Yet Arnott's works have that simple Zen-like impact that perhaps only years of contemplation and fine-tuning can achieve. His sculpture, informed by this formidable intellect, still manages to be accessible to the viewer either familiar or new to his oeuvre. He offers up his whimsical figurative pieces primarily for 'aesthetic enjoyment' in his latest exhibition 'Dreamtime: Signs & Portents'.
Arnott says in his catalogue that 'dreamtime' refers to inner work and the psychological space in which poetic imagery is generated. He says it reflects on icons and mythologems that have influenced his approach to the making of art - Icarus, the Theseus myth, the Green Man, Prophetic heads, the Flight of the Hippogriff, Punch, Oskar and Biggles.
These references are combined with other hallmarks. His sharp wit shapes every one of his 35 small bronzes and 20 pen drawings with his distinctive blend of humour rooted in French and Italian comedy traditions. They also show the figurative derivations that have evolved into a kind of geometric shorthand.
This aspect is particularly striking in his miniatures. Arnott is well known for his large public sculptures. The Citizen, which stands outside the JAG, is a brilliant satire on the cigar-smoking businessman dressed in morning coat, striding out to work, cane in hand and Financial Times tucked under the arm. But over more recent years, he has begun playing on a smaller scale.
His figures are made from reductive shapes - circles, squares, cones - that create a kind of shorthand of the body in much the same way that a cartoonist might employ characterisation techniques. The miniatures are exhibited just below eye level, encouraging close scrutiny, and they are amplified by the accompanying ink drawings hung up on the walls. The rest of the show includes slightly larger figures with a grander presence and some larger scale repeats of the miniatures.
Professor Pippa Skotnes, the head of Michaelis School of Fine Art, spoke at Arnott's exhibition opening about how he first alerted her as a student to the possibilities of wit and imagination in art. She called his work a web of connections, 'conflating time and space and bringing together ideas from different cultural domains'.
Skotnes also made mention of the shamanistic elements in Arnott's work, which are quite strikingly resonant of San art. She says Arnott's wizards, dreamers, surfing clouds and floating forms are 'past and present, plausible and implausible, serious and eccentric, existing side by side'. Skotnes concluded that Arnott's sculptures carried a weight of meaning generated by decades of study, combining charm, lightness and irreverence to offer insights and idiosyncracies.
All those characteristics are strikingly evident at the Irma Stern Museum. Since Arnott is now freed from the constraints of teaching university students, expect more delight from this accomplished sculptor.
Opens: October 20
Closes: November 6