Diane Victor at Goodman Gallery
by Michael Smith
That the grotesque is an important albeit seldom acknowledged part of our culture needs little argument. The heightened access to digital images that has resulted from the proliferation of the Internet and cellular telephones has, as a byproduct, created fresh networks across which strange and bizarre images circulate. Yet, while many default to a position of doomsayer when faced with the (mediated) viscerality of the grotesque image, bemoaning the loss of standards and the 'inevitable' moral decay evidenced by the consumption of such images, it is in the unlikely source of 19th Century artist and critic that the reverse position finds vindication. In The Stones of Venice Ruskin states 'wherever the human mind is healthy and vigorous in all its proportions... there the grotesque will exist in full energy... I believe there is no test of greatness in periods, nations, or men, more sure than the development among them or in them, of a noble grotesque.'
Diane Victor has always been an important artist for South Africa in her willingness to deal with and complicate the grotesque. In a very real way, Victor's work, from the mid-80s to the present, has frequently served to image this nation's corruption, both before and after liberation. Chief amongst the weapons in her arsenal has been her unflinching impulse to eroticise the ugly and macabre (this is still evident, especially in works like Martyr, 2004 on this show, with its orgasmic Saint Sebastian-type image).
The push-and-pull of the revulsion/attraction dichotomy so often central to the compelling nature of Victor's earlier work, put her into the company of international 'bad girl' artists like Sue Williams and Lisa Yuskavage (two artists curated onto Robert Storr's 2004 SITE Santa Fé Biennal show 'Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque'). As with Yuskavage, some of Victor's strongest moments occur when the line between her moralistic programme of highlighting hypocrisy and excess, and her own enjoyment of perverted imagery blur tantalisingly.
Recently, however, her approach has shown something of a more nuanced engagement with the concept of the grotesque, and she has followed through on her earlier investigations into sex and sexuality by touching on the HIV/Aids pandemic. This show contains a number of formal and conceptual developments, most notably her technique of drawing with soot. This is valuable in providing a foil to her often maniacally detailed charcoal and etching work. This process, which involves making marks on paper with soot from a burning candle, has forced a fresh looseness onto Victor's approach, one that effectively extends her range. The first series of works of this nature Victor showed (at Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town in 2006) depicted the residents of an HIV/Aids treatment centre. The inherent fragility of the works perfectly embodied the physical and psychological states of the subjects.
This time around, Victor has used the medium to create an installation of images of missing children. Confining her focus to children that have been missing for more than two months (the unofficial 'cut-off' period, after which chances of recovery dramatically decrease), and often relying on small, poor quality Internet images as sources, Victor conjures up the spectre of a nation's shame. The impulse towards the grotesque remains part of Victor's strategy here, and the images are at odds with traditional depictions of children. Ugly by dint of the coarse, blotchy, unpredictable medium, the subjects are nonetheless imbued with some of the nobility of which Ruskin speaks. The grotesque, rather than being an aesthetic indulgence as disingenuous as beauty, here becomes a means for exploring the emotions that surround violent loss.
These flickering records of fading presences face-off with a trio of larger scale charcoal drawings, entitled Stained Gods I, II and III, 2005. Again, Victor employs a new technical device, this time using water to create and 'encourage' stains on the paper surface. And as with the smoke works, the new technique holds its own intrinsic meaning. In these works, the stains partly obscure and partly create the figures, here billowing around classical drapery like clouds of dust, there adhering to body parts like auras of guilt. Their placement directly opposite the smoke works is entirely intentional: Victor states that placing them like this casts them as the sullied, fallible deities, representative of a social fabric that has failed the missing children. Victor's pet strategy of violently subverting pious images with explicitly carnal detail here morphs into something altogether more subtle, and yet knowing the history of her imagery we understand the innuendos.
The continuation of Victor's well-known Disasters of Peace series of etchings, hung in a space behind the smoke works, reveals that at times the ire she has for post-liberation SA society remains undiluted. While Graphic, 2005 adopts the compositional conventions of the graphic novel to explore a darkly comic scene of hijacking and murder, Cluster Complex, 2005 takes aim at the rampant development of fortress-style housing estates calculated to capitalize on crime-fuelled paranoia. It is often observed that the title of this series links it with Goya's Disasters of War drypoints, yet the tone of the images recalls instead a farcical Hogarthian pessimism about the inevitability of human folly. Where she transcends this comparison is in Funeral March, 2005, a work which goes further than any vague dystopian suggestion, directly implicating the present government in the horror of prolific Aids-related deaths.
Positioned as they are, separate from the larger charcoal works and a number of large-scale etchings (like Martyr, Minder and Mater, all from 2004), these small etchings read like pages from the sketchbook of an artist not totally ready to surrender the incisive social commentary that informed such works as The Adoration of St. Eúgene, 1990.
This show, up at Goodman Gallery until August 12, reveals a mid-career artist enthusiastically expanding her own repertoire, and remaining relevant as a result.
Closes: August 12
163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Tel: (011) 788 1113
Fax: (011) 788 9887
Hours: Tue - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 9.30am - 4pm