Archive: Issue No. 85, September 2004

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Ryan Arenson

Ryan Arenson
White Tree, 2004
Oil on canvas

Ryan Arenson: being Pierneef
by Robyn Sassen

Upon entering The Premises Gallery, the visitor will be struck by a sophisticated sense of aesthetics in Ryan Arenson's current exhibition, 'Pierneef: Black, White and Coloured'. The works are dignified and quiet, and position themselves demurely, as they have throughout the history of western art.

On perusal though, there is both more and less, and this is the rub. Arenson makes a very self-conscious gesture in framing several pages of hand-written text, teasing out the frank realities of living abroad but suffering nostalgia for local complexity. He declares that he lived in Paris, where he had plenty, but he missed J. H. Pierneef, one of the high apartheid South Africa signature artists.

Spelling errors aside, this text is positioned close to the logical beginning of the show, and as a gesture, made me want to flee immediately: this type of belly-button contemplation was seen as trite and labelled taboo when European romanticism lost its edge, during the last century. More than this, it's embarrassingly self-conscious, and detracts from the primary issues at hand.

This hand-written text, admittedly, positions the show, in terms of its nostalgia for local values, and its focus on the beauty and the technical powers of Pierneef's work. But is it necessary? This is a local gallery, not that far from the Johannesburg station, where a massive commission of Pierneef's work was mounted for years. Almost everyone who has lived in this country for any amount of time, should be able to recognise those beautiful, but colonially vast bare landscapes with their pink rocks and graphic clouds.

Besides which, Arenson's work is strong enough to speak for itself. Certainly his reputation is: he's been living and working in Paris for the past several years, having won the ABSA Atelier award which set him up there.

Arenson comments on the fascist ideology in these works, and, implicitly, in Pierneef's outlook. He also plummets the technical and aesthetic magnificence of Pierneef, which have effectively rendered this apartheid fine art master credible in the history of western art in South Africa, in spite of his fundamentalist ideals. Arenson remakes a whole range of Pierneef's work, as woodcuts, and as heavily painted paintings evoking the quality of a woodblock. This gesture is postmodern in the extreme and the authorship of the work falls into ethical and discursive question.

Arenson is an intelligent and competent artist. He takes himself very seriously and works within a labour-intensive framework that offers a result which is a delight to look at. In 'Pierneef: Black, White and Coloured', he sets up powerful socio-political concerns, which immediately evoke black, white and Coloured in skin variations and not paint tones.

So, while the socio-political stuff is all ready and poised to be led out and explored, it isn't. Pierneef is present, celebrated, glorified, but it is not clear why, other than for a sense of South African nostalgia and a vague contemplation of his fascist ideology.

It opens up cans of discourse, and the fact that the show sold out on opening night belies my scepticism and perhaps makes me too unsubtle a judge. Arenson has the bravery to make unfashionable gestures about behaviour in the visual arts and the tenacity to construct images in very low-tech repetitive, almost therapeutic mindsets. Consequently, he's never somebody to overlook, in spite of, or maybe because of his working ideology that holds him beyond the framework of mainstream expectations.

August 1 - 21