Paul Emmanuel at the Old Fort
by Robyn Sassen
In the early 1990s, Paul Emmanuel focused on minute nuances of light and shade. His technique was mezzotint, the hybrid drypoint technique in which a texture is applied to a prepared etching plate, and the image is painstakingly burnished in. It's notorious for its idiosyncrasies, difficulties and for its unforgiving qualities. But if mastered, mezzotint can yield an unsurpassed level of beauty and subtlety. Mezzotint is about releasing an image from a surface, and this, it seems has become Emmanuel's dictum in his maturation as an artist.
Emmanuel moved from mezzotint to scraperboard, bagging First Prize at the First Sasol Wax in Art competition in 2002. After Image represents a logical but magnificent transition. Completed last year, and acquired by Hollard Insurance, this 2 x 4.8m work, the namesake of his show currently up at The Old Fort, Constitution Hill, comprises an exposed sheet of colour photographic paper. It is meticulously incised with an image startling in its sureness of line, composition and structure, and magnificent in its subtlety.
A comment on the abysmal waste of human life engendered by wars, the image depicts a landscape of grass and sky. A soldier's shirt and pants lie strewn in its midst. Often echoes of the space which a body might have occupied are more emotive than the actual body itself. Often the smell of an absent loved one is more moving and real than memories or photographs.
And this, perhaps, is the root of the exhibition's title. In her introductory essay to the catalogue, Julia Charlton examines the semantic roots of the phrase 'after image': 'Moving from dark to light has positive emotional associations the process of establishing form and substance from nothing implies a searching vulnerability that is shared in the literal act of finding an image through subtracting blackness.'
'After Image' draws from Emmanuel's project entitled 'The Lost Men', a site-specific installation launched at last year's Grahamstown National Festival of the Arts. With large scale images of fragments of the artist's naked body, blind-embossed with the names and details of men killed in the Anglo Boer War, printed onto sheets and hung on lines, the work blew, uncontrollably in the wind. They're provocative images, not easily recognisable at first, oddly sterile, the artist's body blandly hairless, frankly without identity.
Emmanuel comments on war: 'We suffer the loss of humanity, we suffer the loss of gentleness and vulnerability, the loss of feeling, empathy and sensitivity. We suffer the loss of dignity, we suffer the loss of relationships and potential, we suffer the loss of hope and future'. Mantra-like, his words echo the simplistic power of the work. He continues, 'We become defined by ideas of manliness, militarism and patriarchy which confine and define men to live out pre-determined gender roles, limiting their emotional expression.'
This extraordinary body of work is testament to not only a polished sensitivity in the development of an oeuvre, but the intimate maturing of an individual. Not detracting from the minuscule intimacy and feintly hairy line of a burnished mezzotint, the work is crisp and confident.
The Old Fort is a particularly magnificent space for this show - with the peeling walls, speaking of its apartheid-tainted history, it is a place where young men and women suffered in the name of their beliefs. Emmanuel links the material to his identity and his gender. His presence in the work is palpable, but he reflects on himself as a universal man, caught in the double-binds which are about being male in this all too brutal world.
'After Image' is earmarked to travel internationally within the year. Watch this space for further details.
Opens: January 17
Closes: February 10
The Old Fort, Constitution Hill
1 Kotze Street, Hillbrow
Tel: (011) 482 1258 or 082 395 7417
Hours: Mon - Sun 9am - 5pm