Archive: Issue No. 85, September 2004

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'Now and Then': delving into the black fantasies of an artist with a sense of humour
by Robyn Sassen

'Now and then', a retrospective of Norman Catherine's work, in the South Gallery of the Pretoria Art Museum, is restless, frenetic and scary. And that's the fun part.

Catherine's history as a cage-rattler, beginning with overtly political work is not cut- and-dried, but he is extremely prolific and outrageous. In a heavily referenced literary essay which accompanies the show, Ashraf Jamal interrogates the different elements of laughter and terror that populate Catherine's work, dating from 30 years ago. Catherine has, in many respects, been a groundbreaker who cannot logically be consigned to a category. The influences he manifests in his work are characterised by bastardised modernist values.

Yes, his work is about political realities and the morbid stuntedness of society, but it's also about flights of fantasy, which remove it from serious political discourse. Catherine's menagerie of crocodiles and criminals, monsters and bogeymen is about the evolving state of South Africa through the artist's idiosyncratic and personal visions, coloured by not merely black - or bitter - but nightmare humour.

The work from Catherine's 'Fook Island' period, realised in collaboration with Walter Battiss during the bleak 1980s, represents a desire 'to banish harshness, sadness and bigotry'. This imaginary island was understood to exist off the coast of Africa and had its own infrastructure of insane bureaucracies, which named Battiss 'King Ferd 111' and Catherine 'Norman King Norman', the respective monarchs of the place without a fixed provenance. Other characters populated the island, including Linda Givon, Catherine's agent, who was 'Queen Asteroa'.

Hung chronologically, the exhibition gives insight into Catherine's development from slickly handled air-brushed and pastel drawn images, surrealistically informed, but central to a political discourse, to bolder less polished works, more violent in gesture and fantastic in appearance. He works in both two and three dimensions, in bronze, and painted canvas.

Collectively, these pieces, which go at one another with their violent gestures and their implied blood-curdling yells and grim situations, present a worldview that ironically confronts the issues of identity and confusion that must characterise the thinking individual in contemporary society. 'Ultimately, Catherine is a fetishist', Jamal comments in his essay, 'a serialist, an obsessive dogged by form. Like a stuck record he is unafraid of repeating himself; knowing all the while the differences that undo and shift every repetition, every ritual.'

The piece de resistance is Pandora's Box, an installation of roughly 80 figurines, which in their poses and distortions comment on a range of bleak and negative proclivities: products of the human condition in a contemporary era. From one suffering from lust to the schizoid, from the serial killer to the pyromaniac, these figures are typecast like comic characters, shocking in their violence, entertaining in their surprise value, magnificent in their sense of completion.

'Now and Then', evoking a sense of time delay, reveals our time as bleaker and more violent than ever before. Catherine's works are, however, a treat for the senses and an astute comment on the human condition.

August 7 - September 11