Sanell Aggenbach at Art on Paper
by Michael Smith
The history of maritime painting the world over is inextricably wound up with the history of conquering and colonisation. While this is no great revelation, in a post-colonial age of interrogating received notions of history and geography, it is often the artist's task to open up the invisible seams in these constructs, to expose just how much our sense of the world is based on fictions. Cape Town artist Sanell Aggenbach takes this position a step further by integrating the personal into this equation with her new show, 'Blues and Greys' at Art on Paper.
Aggenbach's approach, by now characteristically multifarious, reveals that she is an artist of significant power in whichever medium she selects. The implied murkiness of the title, and the sense of whimsy that the artist deliberately injects into the overtly masculine tradition of maritime painting, never slip into lack of focus. Instead, she uses the inherent uncertainty of sea travel to explore notions of personal and cultural uncertainty. The show is the conclusion of a series of three, begun with 'High Tide' at 2005's Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, and continued with 'Fool's Gold' at Bell-Roberts Contemporary also last year. The three shows constitute a body of work that was initiated after a visit to the Muse´e National de la Marine in Paris, France.
The strength of this work is that Aggenbach resists the impulse to simply comment retrospectively on how bad colonialism was. All too often this has become the modus operandi of artists attempting to tack some credibility onto aimless work: this was my fear when reading phrases like 'the intersection of history and geography' in the show's press release. Rather, the show proves that Aggenbach's interrogation of history and geography is infused with an attempt to understand the anxieties felt by generations of sailors, owing as they did their continued existence to elemental factors of dwarfing proportions, and to liken those anxieties to her own.
The seismic shift in power that has occurred in the last 10 or so years in SA has left many, particularly young white Afrikaners, in a situation of cultural crisis. In earlier works, The Collective (2003) for example, Aggenbach began an exploration of this theme. This show continues such an exploration in a more subtle, and thus more compelling, manner.
Drift (2006), the only watercolour on show and something of a signature work for the exhibition, bears the cursive text 'so far from where I intended to go'. The featureless expanse of water that makes up the image in places becomes abstract, turning the work into a kind of 'postcard from nowhere'. Here Aggenbach uses watercolours to paint water: more than just a visual pun, this work reveals the artist's willingness to allow her media to round off ideas referenced by the images they create. Elsewhere, as in the wall-based sculptural installation North by Northwest (2005) and the tantalisingly inconclusive The End (2006) she makes use of laminated wood, typically used in boatbuilding. The works thus become about the maritime era in more than just a superficial sense, and again highlight their own, and thus maritime art's, constructedness.
A series of paintings of 20th Century mail ships, entitled Fleet 1 - 7 (2006) reveals Aggenbach's willingness to toy with the traditional role of maritime painter as documentor and propagandist. The works are hung in a cluster, an installation of paintings. The repetition of the image with altered colours and differences of cropping and composition is more reminiscent of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans' so-called 'filmic' approach to painting than any Warholian mass-production ethic. The effect of a sustained meditation on a single image, but which the artist allows herself to alter and emotionally project onto, is the antithesis of Warhol's much-touted desensitisation through repetition. Instead, the shifting crops suggest a zeroing in on the extreme emotion which the image of a ship may have evoked and come to represent in bygone eras. Far from the traditional, heroic depictions of stately ships, Aggenbach's approach results in something akin to Turner's The Fighting Tremeraire, loaded with tragedy and loss. Her use of semi-opaque frosted glass panes in front of the images reinforces the sense that a strategic use of media is what constantly distinguishes her approach.
In Passive Aggressive (2005) and Blue Vitrine (2006) the artist again approaches painting with the mindset of installation: in each work variously sized canvases reveal tromp l�oeil depictions of Victorian crockery, rendered in subtle creams and beiges. The paintings are again grouped together, this time resting on shelves, mimicking similar displays of real crockery in homes. But while the images are wonderfully restrained, something about the works is unsettling: the pervasive sensation of the show is that the viewpoint of most of the works places the viewer onboard a ship; such displays of crockery on a ship would have been hopelessly precarious, inviting disaster. Thus Aggenbach evokes notions of personal and cultural insecurity.
Souvenirs (2005), continues this exploration with its display case full of a mini-armada of 'paper' boats, here made of porcelain, clearly referencing vulnerability. The sheer number and uniform arrangement of the boats suggests a display of mock-aggression in a child's game; however, the porcelain boats are fundamentally fragile. Preserved as they are in a wall cabinet, they speak of a doomed attempt to freeze a memory, and by implication a blissful period of cultural dominance.
In all, this show succeeds through careful arrangement, selection and strong work. The wit and whimsy with which Aggenbach reworks established images and conventions lend her subversion a welcome tenderness. This show is hopefully indicative of a run of good exhibitions at Art on Paper�s new space.
Closed: April 29
Art on Paper
44 Stanley Street, Milpark, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 726 2234
Hours: Tue - Sat 10am - 5pm