Birds of Paradise and Also-Rans: The Michaelis Graduate Exhibition 2005
by Elan Gamaker
The only thing more difficult than reviewing a group exhibition is reviewing one where the group outweighs the exhibition. Or where the group is so big it's hard to sift through the detritus of half-gasped chunks of expression masquerading as art (or is it an ism?) and find something worth talking about (at least without reducing one's self to mixing equine and avian metaphors).
It's also particularly challenging when so many of the group in question are familiar to you, and particularly galling when the only aspect in which they fail to disappoint is in their reliability for falling short of the mark. So name-drop I will, in some cases from a considerable height.
For I know this Michaelis lot a sight better than any other year. I have vested interests, wanton flesh and poker nemeses among them, and if I'm biased it's in a loving yet lovingly cruel way, simply because my fascination for them is driven not by the desire to be forever young (not entirely anyway) but by a strong belief that, even while it's clear through a haze of smoke and in the reflection of retro sunglasses, the kids are not all right � damn if they don't have talent.
There are the also-rans, to be sure, and those who fall short of true achievement by a short head. This misguided horse-racing parlance has crept in here not out of the desire to imbue an analogy of open-air competition (nor, surprisingly, out of the maxim that most artists should either be summarily sent to stud or destroyed), but nay (neigh?), out of the crushing realisation that at art school, as in life, there are the thoroughbreds and the nags. Asses, too.
So if my unenviable task as reviewer of the aforementioned übercool-lab is to separate the wheat from the chaff (a mixed metaphor, perhaps, but horses do eat hay), then pass me whatever tool Swartland farmers use to effect such separation and step back a safe distance. Upon said blade (yes, it must be a blade) is brandished a series of 'i' words that spring to mind.
The first is indolence. It's true that talent and laziness tend to go together like bourbon and the 12-bar blues. But to see how gems such as Georgina Gratrix and Renzske Scholtz produced work that was, respectively, immensely appealing and quietly brooding - yet incomplete and frustratingly sketchy - became hard to stomach (more on alimentary disorders later).
Yes, Gratrix's was an orgiastic expression of anthropomorphism, even lycanthropy, a family of creatures populated by the grotesque and the grotesquely beautiful: Paris Hilton, porn stars and the Mario Brothers forming a coalescence of sex and delusion, sexuality and illusion. No doubt, Scholtz's sombre 'one-minute montages' delineated Afrikaner identity and the rural/urban dichotomy by way of the Yellow Brick Road. Clever.
But case in point was Lauren Palte's bitter, sweet (but never bittersweet) rendition of the performance within the family portrait; the result was dark, energetic and tempered by a rage that came not just from accessing the hidden but through the trial and error of a good hard slog. Rebecca Haysom's elegiac and intensely lonely portraiture of simple penstrokes swallowed up by nameless people (even a couple of cricketers who have just lost their wickets), themselves overwhelmed by the claustrophobic vastness of nature, was further evidence of the (potential) value of completion where talent is taken care of.
After indolence come insolence, indigence, insecurity and, refreshingly, indigestion.
Insolence, because those who set out to prove herewith that they are Real People seemed to forget no-one really cares whether or not they are ready for the world (or if the world is ready for them). Expression of one's Weltanschauung is at any age asking for trouble unless it is handled with humility, best represented in the jocular � Chad Rossouw's literate and playful sublimation of noir and hard-bitten masculinity � and the respectful: Mario Todeschini's dazzling yet portentous subversion of the persistence of vision.
Regrettably, much work that dealt with the liminal space between academia and Those Other Bits Of The Earth was heady, heavy stuff indeed, but in most cases merely left us with collections carrying a misplaced cynicism redolent of the next stage of their lives, or labouring a childlike refusal to accept this transition. Or, worst of all, a naïve and disingenuous declaration that it can be made with alacrity.
Indigence must be mentioned, for while there must always be found creativity in poverty, having an empty wallet of ideas is no excuse. Those who found a balance between what could be paid for with the spondulicks earned the hard way and ideas that could flourish regardless of the square-metre cost of Hahnemüller came out smelling of roses, albeit sometimes plastic ones.
Take a bow Gabriella Alberts (finely-tuned prints and a video installation on the 1960s woman and her alter ego as the Female Mechanic), Bronwen Hughes (oversized bunnies proving that there should be no VAT on 'feminine hygiene products'), Linda Stupart (witty, incisive take on Girls And Their Horses), Lee Storrer (meticulous Victorian lace and haberdashery), and David Scadden (starkly pessimistic, bitingly funny and brilliantly rendered animation of a future Cape Town blowing itself to smithereens with shells bearing the Proudly South African logo).
Insecurity should always feature strongly in an artwork, but whether it is the raison d'etre or modus operandi is the damning (and damn pretentious) question. While works as diverse as Wouter Wessels' highly pleasing collection of intricate - priapismic? - wire-frame men and Danielle Cook's handsomely crafted fembots with AC/DC sexuality dealt well with the sexual dimension of power, other works fell on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line of personal uncertainty (or eschewed such angst in favour of making a buck).
While I can recognise that indigestion as another 'i' word playing a part may be offensive to People Against the Pointless Use of Alliteration, it is nevertheless necessary to nut out the nausea generated by some works. While this may in some cases have been intentional, there was still now and then the uneasy feeling that the queasiness was not a buy-this-product but a by-product, the unfortunate reflux of works that were too big, too loud, or too colourful.
And as Derek Bayley's chilling cross-section of children and childhood dealt with abuse successfully in that the artist accepted responsibility for his subject, lending an emotional rather than proselytising or manipulative approach, others, attempting to capture similarly heavy themes with ill-placed misappropriation, sent me reaching for the retch-bag.
Let us not forget the other 'i' word: insincerity. The bird-flu of any high-flying foal (a mixed metaphor again, but then Horse Feathers was the name of a Marx Brothers movie), more than anything else, was those who tried to sidestep (as opposed to address) the clutches of this of 'i' word and failed triumphantly to hide its deleterious effects behind smoke and mirrors (in some cases literally).
Finally, then, the big kahuna of 'i' words is the personal pronoun itself. 'I' as a concept must and will flow through all art, the question is how this lot will bring this about.
Now that the beautiful birds of 2005 have flown the stable, our lives will be poorer until the stars of this alumnus re-emerge. And with nowhere - it'll be real gallery space from now on, kids - to leave their bullshit, we can look forward to watching the feathers fly. Giddy-up.
Elan Gamaker is an artist and filmmaker currently living in Cape Town
Opened: November 30
Closed: December 21
Michaelis School of Fine Art
Hiddingh Campus, 31 - 7 Orange Street, Gardens
Tel: (021) 480 7111