Archive: Issue No. 99, November 2005

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Feedback is an open forum for readers to share any comments and insights relevant to art practice in South Africa. We reserve the right to edit all submissions.

From: Gavin Anderson
Received: September 23
Subject: Open letter to Andrew Lamprecht

Regarding your review entitled 'The Magnet Is Always On' (ArtThrob, September 2005), I offer the following observations and questions which I've pondered with renewed enthusiasm since reading your review. This is done in the spirit of constructive engagement with a writer whose observations I have grown to trust. Some of my remarks originate from a prior consideration of 'Current Artistic Practice In South Africa And The Denial Of History', the working title of an investigation I am conducting.

In the case of this particular review, I feel that it is not enough simply to describe the works, with disarming honesty acknowledge their 'difficulty' (without stating the origin and nature of their difficulty, and whether or not it is justified), be seduced by them to a greater or lesser degree, and leave things standing there. A decent audience will always remain interested in what the works are saying, or, put differently, in the 'meaning' produced from within specified territories of engagement with interested interlopers mapped out by the artists and/or curator.

To me, a descriptive account of how a painter, for example, has rendered the clouds of a landscape in a particular way is of far less interest than an exploration of the meaning s/he releases for the viewer to construct through having done so. Francesca Verga's account of the Allen/Buster/Moe show at the KZNSA is an extreme example of this, for she fails to provide a single shred of interpretive criticism other than to report the commonplace bio-blurb that '.... Allen is known for re-interpreting, visually interfering with and deconstructing media and newspaper clippings to comment on contemporary realities.' As a consequence, the page which carries her review mimics my local newspaper's Recent Weddings page: a collection of colour photographs with redundant descriptive captions such as, 'The bride wore a white organza gown and carried a bouquet of red roses'.

Too much contemporary art has 'nothing to say and no way of saying it', as once was said of Jackson Pollock, and in my view much work that is currently finding favour in South Africa languishes, to put it kindly, in the allied realms of abstract and subjective generalisation. This is at the expense of paying even closer attention to more articulate work that is aware of its audience, speaks in an extensible visual language and is rooted and specific and, therefore, more convincing (eg. the work of Conrad Botes). Because critics and curators bear a good deal of responsibility for promoting this state of affairs they, unlike the artists they champion, must be prepared to conduct an apology regarding their take on things.

Art that I find worthwhile provides us with a unique and valuable way of knowing, it lifts the veil of familiarity, and it does so by privileging the concrete and particular over the abstract and general. Artists of any consequence have known this for some time: 'What is General Nature? Is there Such a Thing? What is General Knowledge? Is there such a Thing? Strictly speaking All Knowledge is Particular.' (William Blake, Annotations To Reynolds, 1808)

'To a greater or lesser extent all 12 artists have expressly used their materials to represent the concrete abstractly.' Why? Exactly what do they manage to achieve by doing so? For example, how does Paul Edmunds' Sieve, your preferred work on the show, represent the concrete abstractly and what does it signify to you when you engage with it? I have followed Edmunds' work with interest since I first encountered it when he was completing his MAFA; given my geographical situation (Anderson lives in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal - Ed), however, it was impossible for me to visit this show, and your review leaves me struggling to understand how 'a part of a photograph of the early morning sky' can be regarded as a concrete and specific matrix for abstraction.

From your description Sieve reads more like an abstraction (the artwork) of an abstraction (the 'original' absent photograph) of an abstraction (the CMYK analysis of a portion of the absent photograph) of a non-specific visual phenomenon (the early morning sky). By 'non-specific' I mean to indicate that from your account of the work it seems we cannot identify whether or not the photograph was made in Alice Springs, Nagasaki, Port of Spain or Kuruman, and that such contextualisation is of little consequence anyway. I conclude, therefore, that either you are not doing the work justice or it is an entirely arbitrary, Zen-like exercise of discipline and patience: a radically displaced, meta-historical and hyper-abstract whimsicality.

This prompts me to pose the following questions: Do the works on show address a specific audience or not? How does what they might signify when engaged with relate to the culturally disparate particularities of life in South Africa today? Does the work speak with eloquence and subtlety in a rich language we can come to understand, or does it speak in the Esperanto of abstract generalisation instead?

Accomplished artists saturate us with accessible and seductive evidence of 'insight of a special kind into reality' (Wallace Stevens, Modernist poet); to update this for the postmodernist palate: accomplished artists defamiliarise the realities or phenomena we encounter and assist us in reconstructing them in new and valuable ways. These processes are built into their work. Furthermore, with rare and notable exceptions - Duchamp, Robert Morris, Sol Le Witt, for example - they refuse to contribute to the ubiquitous cult of personality that infects popular culture by writing about their work. The self-reflexivity built into their work renders such an exercise (of seemingly paranoid self-promotion) redundant.

A decent audience trusts the art - or, at a second remove, the critic? - and their interaction with it, not the artist. An accomplished artist knows this. And if biographical detail is required for an audience to access the work, the work itself is made to carry such detail. Otherwise such cataloguing is mostly of prurient interest to sycophants, acolytes and other sundry hangers-on, for usually it reveals a self-conscious postmodernist concern with discontinuous minutiae at the expense of interactive signification. This occurs when an artist's work has lost its referent and is thereby rendered incapable of referring to anything outside itself.

When I reviewed the publication 10 years 100 artists: Art in a Democratic South Africa for my local newspaper I wrote:

'... Perryer requested the selectors to use as a starting point her observation that, 'The past decade has seen artists freed from the imperative to make work in response to the socio-political conditions of apartheid, and the emergence of concerns with complex issues often relating to individual identity.' This describes accurately the most noticeable trend in contemporary art produced in South Africa over the past decade. I find this trend disappointing, as one's identity as a South African (regardless of one's cultural affiliation) is and, for generations to come, will remain deeply informed by the histories of this country from 1820 - 1994. From 1994 onwards, many of our contemporary artists prematurely have assumed license to shelve these histories in favour of exploring a more introspective and less politicised subjectivity.

'Nevertheless, the trend noted above and exemplified in this book reflects something important regarding present day South Africans: we are tired of the burden of our past; we wish to embrace a future that effaces the past... As with the aftermath of every divorce, however, much baggage will need to be processed for many years to come. This is demonstrated in the work of German artists from post-WW II to the present. But the urge to arrest the past because we are weary of it is omnipresent, and many of the artists represented in this book (notably younger ones with conceptualist and minimalist tendencies... ) dutifully reflect that urge.' (The Witness, November 2004)

By extrapolating Perryer's brief in the above passage, I believe I have identified why much currently favoured artistic practice overwhelmingly tends to privilege a generalised subjectivity and the magnetic gravitation towards meta-historical abstraction (ironically, these were two of the main features of Abstract Expressionism, sponsored and exported by the CIA). This, I suggest, is why such work presents near-insurmountable difficulties of interpretation, and it also accounts for the 'lack of compassion' - your perspicacious 'conditional reservation' - and the related impressions of 'distance', 'austerity' and 'haughtiness' that thrill you so.

To conclude: In your penultimate paragraph you report that 'I am still at a bit of a loss with this exhibition.' Perhaps it would have been fruitful briefly to have explored one of the chief concerns of Abstract Expressionism, its elevation of process (it did, after all, eventually give rise to post-minimalist Process Art), especially since this caused very similar and still unresolved difficulties of interpretation. As it stands, however, I find it curious that your review delivers exceedingly high praise for an 'undoubtedly... brilliant' exhibition which, from my perspective, by implication and upon interrogation, it actually finds wanting.

What do you think?

From: Emma Bedford, Head of Art Collections
Curator of Contemporary Paintings and Sculpture, SANG
Received: 01.11.05
Subject: Solo exhibitions at museums

In response to a query in Feedback as to why museums do not curate more solo exhibitions I have compiled the below list which, though not exhaustive, will give readers some insights into the number and range of such exhibitions mounted at Iziko South African National Gallery from 1994 to 2006.While the costs of planning and mounting these exhibitions weigh heavily on institutions with inadequate funding, you will see that we are deeply committed to profiling South African artists through a range of solo exhibitions. We are fortunate in benefiting from the support of corporate sponsors such as Standard Bank and DaimlerChrysler through their respective award exhibitions.

I'd be interested to hear from readers who in their opinion are the artists most deserving of solo exhibitions. With thanks to ArtThrob for the excellent service you provide to the arts community.

Solo exhibitions that have been shown at Iziko South African National Gallery, including retrospectives, survey exhibitions, solo shows, focused exhibits and residencies:

In preparation for 2006
Ernest Mancoba, Santu Mofokeng, Wim Botha Standard Bank Young Artist 2005, Marianne Podlashuc (at the Old Town House), South African Women Icons: Photographs by Karina Turok

Madiba: Man of Destiny. Photographs by Peter Magubane, Euphemism: Kathryn Smith Standard Bank Young Artist 2004, Dumile Feni Retrospective, Gerard Sekoto: From the Paris Studio, The Muse of History: Paintings by Helmut Starcke (at the Old Town House), Zoulikha Bouabdellah

Guy Tillim DaimlerChrysler Award 2004, Float: Berni Searle Standard Bank Young Artist 2003, Penny Siopis: My Lovely Day

Jane Alexander DaimlerChrysler Award 2002, Gladys Mgudlandlu Retrospective, Brett Murray Standard Bank Young Artist 2002, Willem Boshoff: KykAfrikaans, Otto Dix

William Kentridge: A Retrospective Exhibition, Albert Adams, Walter Oltmann Standard Bank Young Artist 2001, Moshekwa Langa: Fresh Artist-in-Residence, Fanie Jason (Month of Photography) (at the Annexe)

Alan Alborough Standard Bank Young Artist 2000, Narratives, Rituals and Graven Images: A photographic commentary by Omar Badsha, Usha Seejarim: Fresh Artist-in-Residence, Tracey Rose: Fresh Artist-in-Residence, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt: Fresh Artist-in-Residence, Exchange Values (Shelly Sacks)

Kay Hassan DaimlerChrysler Award 2000, Berni Searle: Fresh Artist-in-Residence, Robin Rhode: Fresh Artist-in-Residence, Senzeni Marasela: Fresh Artist-in-Residence, Roelof Uytenbogaardt, Susan Hefuna: Navigation XCultural (at the Annexe), A Tribute to Andrew Murray (at the Natale Labia Museum)

Azaria Mbatha Retrospective, Gerard Sekoto, Structures: Photographs by David Goldblatt

Lien Botha: Standard Bank Young Artist 1997, Joseph Beuys, Revel Fox, Harry Trevor: The South African Years (at the Natale Labia Museum), Keith Dietrich: Invited Artist

Gerard Sekoto: A body of work repatriated, Joy Gregory: Lost Histories (at the Natale Labia Museum)

George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba, Cecil Skotnes Retrospective, Jane Alexander: Standard Bank Young Artist 1995, Jurgen Schadeberg

Sam Nhlengethwa: Standard Bank Young Artist 1994, Hand in Hand: A Retrospective of Ernest Mancoba and Sonya Ferlov Mancoba, Maurice Weightman

Durant Sihlali: Mural Retrospective, Face Value: Old Heads in Modern Masks (Malcolm Payne), Pippa Skotnes: Standard Bank Young Artist 1993, Patricia Pierce Atkinson Commemorative Exhibition, Hanns Ludwig Katz, Eisenstaedt