Willie Bester and Zwelethu Mthethwa at the AVA
by Kim Gurney
This exhibition by close friends Willie Bester and Zwelethu Mthethwa showcases their latest works. An obvious similarity at first glance is subject matter: both artists take the township as reference for the content of their artworks.
Bester's works comprise a number of small oil paintings embedded in large steel frames, which are instantly recognisable as his distinctive oeuvre. The most successful among them shift from the more sentimental township scenes of a boy with a broken go-kart or a girl holding a doll, to a still-life of pears.
Bester's expertly rendered forms find their perfect foil in the crude frames that surround them. The frames are surprisingly well integrated into the whole composition of each work and their relative crudity only highlights the sensitivity of the paintings within their borders.
The couple of instances where Bester experiments a bit more with the frame succeed in breaking what can become a formulaic device. For instance, Bester literally inserts two bottles of tear gas in a glass-fronted left-hand corner in Still Life with Tear Gas.
Bester also has two sculptures on display alongside his paintings. They are much smaller than his past sculptures, assembled from scrap metal and found objects and providing brutal socio-political commentary. These two metal tanks, one with its barrel in a knot, resonate with issues of war and conflict but with a less menacing presence.
Zwelethu Mthethwa has recently taken the New York art world by storm with his photographs. His September show at New York's Jack Shainman Gallery was completely sold out to four major museums and private collectors. The frenzy was led by Peter Galassi, curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
The three photographs on show at the AVA show why he has caused such a fuss. Untitled II depicts a religious figure in bright red dress crouching beside a bed. The repetitive pattern of the fake leopard print bedcover is repeated by the newspaper advertisements lining the interior wall. Beside him, fridge stickers declare: 'I love my mum'.
This fantastic incongruity is continued in Mthethwa's large-scale pastels on paper, which comprise the rest of the show. He has composed a series of townships scenes in flat planes of bright and bold colours that clamour for attention.
Some are more successful than others. His flat technique and distorted perspectives with highly charged colour suit themes like Party Time. Echoes of Van Gogh's Night Café make the gaudiness appropriate.
The stylistic treatment of High Tea marries well with the incongruity of the subject matter. Set in a rural landscape with goats and two huts, a woman in pointy shoes sips tea while another is dressed up for a night on the town with big red lips, a polka dot dress and a hat. The same techniques seem less purposeful in a work like Backyard, where a man plays checkers in daylight.
Both Bester and Mthethwa depict everyday township scenes in their work. However, that is where they shake hands and part. Their styles are completely different and for good reason.
Bester's dexterity with the paintbrush enables him to provide a 'naturalistic' snapshot of everyday township life with a clear emphasis on the people who inhabit that space and the resilience with which everyday life goes on.
Mthethwa's flat planes of bright colour lead elsewhere. Through unexpected, incongruous juxtapositions, his palette reflects broader tensions in everyday life between tradition and modernity, masculine and feminine, prosperity and deprivation.
Opens: December 15
Closes: January 22
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