Anton Kannemeyer at Art on Paper Gallery
by Michael Smith
Riffing on the notoriously sappy daytime soap The Days of Our Lives, everyone's favourite anarchic comic artist and illustrator Anton Kannemeyer had a welcome jaunt in Johannesburg this month with his show 'More Days of My Life'. Famous as much for his relentless irreverence as for the punchy visual appeal of his work, this work shows Kannemeyer's ongoing interest in what his collaborator Conrad Botes calls 'fiction disguised as biography'. The soap opera reference is accurate in encapsulating the show's intention to reveal the episodic entries from Kannemeyer's sketchbooks, as well as his preoccupation with the parochial, which has been evident as far back as the very first edition of Bitterkomix.
When, in the early 90s, I first became aware of Bitterkomix, the tome that Kannemeyer still produces with fellow social satirist and iconoclast Botes, there was a sense that it was an important publication. The uneasy conglomeration of hi-jacked and re-directed 40s and 50s-style print adverts, short-cut suburban narratives and toe-curling pornography served as a visual antidote to the mawkish optimism many South Africans felt obliged to adopt post-liberation. Like Dead Kennedy's album covers, the work in Bitterkomix served as a kind of alternative State of the Nation address, pointing a big, shit-stirring stick at all the stuff that was still wrong with our fledgling utopia.
Bitterkomix's dalliance with porn went further in Botes' and Kannemeyer's brief creative association with Loslyf magazine, a local derivative of Hustler. There was still a sense that such forays served a social function, that porn could be used as a litmus test of press and speech freedom in a country that purported to have the most liberal and inclusive constitution in the world. Kendell Geers and Steven Cohen certainly used porn in this manner, employing it as one of numerous weapons in the avant-gardist's arsenal with which the establishment was still sniped.
Yet Botes' and Kannemeyer's use of porn was more nuanced than either of these: simultaneously rebellious and pathetic, their scratchy, hand-rendered evocations of copulation questioned the bravado and violence at the core of white male locker-room mentality. The performative nature of the Bitterkomix strategy, i.e. the exorcisim of inherited cultural demons by playing out their language and images to the point of ridicule, frankly necessitated the use of porn images as pivotal. Yet, in 2006, this strategy seems strangely quaint.
That porn no longer shocks, or even has an air of radicality about it in this context is not all Kannemeyer's fault. The simple fact is that the world has moved on from 1995 - 1998, Bitterkomix's halcyon days. In that move, the entire adult entertainment industry has experienced a major cultural and commercial legitimisation. Skin flick veterans are marrying pop stars, moving into mainstream films, Playboy girls have their own show on E! Entertainment Channel. Porn has been the subject of numerous major-release movies in the last 10 years, and as many teenage-oriented pop songs. It has become about as radical as Adidas, with a residual edginess harnessed by marketers as a cool factor.
Against this backdrop the proliferation of pornographic images in this show, both drawn and found, seems to jar for the wrong reasons, especially in Crystallisation of Love I and II (2006). Admittedly a certain latitude is only fair, given that much of the show is comprised of sketchbook pages, ideas and images generated in a private realm and then shown in public. Yet, the works in question seem to creak under the weight of these images rather than be enlivened by them. Like the bucket-vagina in Sarah Lucas' Au Naturel (1994), the issue of porn seems to be all fucked out and exhausted.
Elsewhere, however, Kannemeyer retains previous form, especially with Alphabet of Democracy(2005/6). Taking a similar satirical tack to Diane Victor in her Disasters of Peace series, Kannemeyer's sharp eye for revelatory moments and statements in SA's daily political life makes this a series I firmly believe should be bought with public funds and displayed in the foyer of parliament. It develops on much of early Bitterkomix in the sense that the latter often stopped short of satirizing the post-1994 regime, saving its scalpel for the corpse of the recently deceased apartheid state.
Alphabet of Democracy, however, attacks the absurdity of statements by politicians as diverse as Thabo Mbeki and Eugene Terre'blanche, and as such becomes a potted history of South African stupidity (a highlight is H for Hansie). Numerous images from this series transcend satire, however; in particular an image of a dog curled up and sleeping on the blanket with which its master's murdered body has been covered (J is for Jack Russell 2006), is one of the most arresting images you'll see in SA this year. In this work, the Copic markers designers use to scamp rough designs are used with a painterly richness; the work is a mini-memorial to the transience of SA life, rendered in a transitory medium.
A strong little series on one's way out of the gallery introduces a Warholian visual aesthetic into Kannemeyer's repertoire. Reworked found family photographs, one entitled Anton, Mark and Polina (2006) showing the artist and another white child seated with a black char, reveal moments of Kannemeyer's suburban childhood. Disarming in their frankness, these works suggest, as much of Kannemeyer's best work does, that the most incidental, off-the-cuff of situations or images are frequently the most revealing of one's milieu, and one's position within it.
Opened: June 10
Closed: July 1
Art on Paper Gallery
44 Stanley Avenue Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Tel (011) 726 2234
Hours: Tue - Sat 10am - 5pm