by Julia Charlton (September, 2006)
Vigorous assertion of paint, autobiography, and self-reflexivity as her primary mode characterise Bronwen Findlay's work. Sentimentality and decoration are selected strategies of engagement, but their use is always edgy and ironic, overlaid by her insistence on the metaphoric power and resonance of the ordinary. Findlay's ongoing preoccupation with mortality is expressed in her probing of change and decay in an exuberant affirmation of life. Selecting subjects and methods often pejoratively associated with 'the female realm', she insists upon their power while overturning established hierarchical notions of what constitutes value.
'I think that I am really trying to record bits and pieces of my life. It is like holding on to things as well as letting them go. I want to make sense of the objects and experiences which make up my life and so I use them as starting points, after which there is a tussle between 'things' and the paint. At times objects become part of the painting; they are both destroyed and preserved by the paint. What I am really doing is documenting and recording, keeping tabs on my surroundings and experiences.'
Jeremy Wafer: 'The paintings are clearly beautiful - but shot through with a painterly intensity which is not afraid to violently tear and disrupt and wrench the ordinary and settled.'
The culmination of three year's work, Findlay's most recent solo exhibition 'All about everything' at the Standard Bank Gallery, was constructed around a major work by the same name that further embedded many of her long established concerns while charting new terrain in terms of the seriousness with which she anchors those preoccupations in achingly seductive, subtle paint. On walls adjacent to this major work were displayed other paintings relating to it, individual components of the narrative and meditations on objects as repositories of meaning. The weight of memory and intensive engagement with the decorative dominate in what is essentially a revisionist history painting, a tender and rigorous tribute to her beloved mother on the occasion of her death.
The painting is substantial in scale as well as scope, in every way a magnum opus. The largest painting she has produced thus far, it filled the entire wall in her kitchen where she worked on it over a period of months. The integration of home and artmaking is typical of the way Findlay works, as is the organic additive course of action that unfolded. Findlay describes All about everything as being 'about moving on and letting go - a kind of final statement'. The inevitable process of looking back and taking stock that necessarily accompanies mourning is tangible in the accumulation of objects embedded in the painting. What Findlay refers to as 'things I kept because they had some kind of association but were also without value' are in themselves not always immediately recognisable, but their status as emotionally-charged evocations of desire and loss is clear.
Often the objects are buried and barely visible beneath the paint. They include a plastic hearing aid, 'the funny little pink blob that had been so important' in her mother's life; silkworm cocoons; a bone-handled fork engraved with the Findlay 'F'; bit of embroidery; and a little silk Vermeer left over from childhood - remnants of lives rendered and rent by the visceral glutinous paint.
'Every picture tells a story' was held in March 2006 in Durban at the KZNSA gallery after a one night viewing at the Substation, Wits University, Johannesburg. The exhibition comprised paintings and prints inspired by facecloths, towels and blankets from downtown Johannesburg and Durban, textiles that are the latest expression of Findlay's longstanding interest in the adaptation of cloth as dress. The artworks were presented in a paper she gave in 2005 at 'Dress in South Africa', an international conference hosted by the Centre for Visual Art at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.
The textures and patterns of the cloths triggered the initial attraction and the tension between recognisable references and the ascendant dominance of paint characteristic of Findlay's production. Traces of Johannesburg soccer team Orlando Pirates' 'bones' emblem, the hectic gold and red swirls of flowers from a synthetic Chinese blanket linger along with heraldic military symbols from woolen Basotho blankets. At the David Krut Print Studio, where the prints were made, Findlay developed a technique of pressing the textiles into soft ground to emulate the particular textures. The relationships between the small squares, thinnish rectangles and large squares of the source material were articulated in the exhibition installation as modular units of scale that talk also of bodily relationships, garments, wrappings, body coverings, baby carriers, identity markers and articles for bathing and personal care.
A painting about a bedspread was a Merit Award winner at the 2004 Brett Kebble Art Award exhibition. The source material was an inherited, embroidered bedspread and the work was characteristic of Findlay's foregrounding of individual memory, nostalgia, decoration and domesticity. These associations are referenced through the floral wreath and title but are counteracted by her vigorous use of paint and colour which assert the importance of the painting as a painting independent of any descriptive function.
In 2002 Findlay, Faiza Galdhari and Daina Mabunda were nominated for a FNB Vita Art Award for their collaborative work shown in Johannesburg and Durban in the two years previous.
While lecturing in Fine Art at the University of Durban-Westville, Findlay was involved in many informal community-based art programmes and workshops. In 1992 she met Daina Mabunda from Limpopo, who had established the Xihoko embroidery workshop with Jane Arthur in 1981, and they began what would be an ongoing collaborative relationship. Joined by illustrator and artist Faiza Galdhari some years later, they produced the much lauded collaborative work which comprised 'Painting, Printing and Stitching' and 'Threads' of 2001.
In 1999 Findlay was Artist-in-Residence at the National Festival of The Arts in Grahamstown.
Earlier this year Findlay was sponsored by Visiting Arts in the 'Visiting Arts Artist to Artist' exchange scheme with British artist Joy Gregory at the Gasworks in London. They are further collaborating on a joint project to be realised in a year's time. Although the specificities are still to be distilled the artists are enjoying discovering hitherto unsuspected commonalities.
Born 1953 in Pietermaritzburg. Lives and works in Johannesburg.
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
2006 'All about everything' Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
'Every picture tells a story' KZNSA Gallery, Durban after Substation, Wits
2005 'A blanket story' David Krut Print Workshop, Johannesburg
Exhibition at Tokara wine estate curated by Julia Meintjes
2002 'Floors and Flowers' Tamasa Gallery, Durban
2001 'Threads' Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, with Daina Mabunda and Faiza Galdhari
'Painting, Printing, Stitching - The work of Bronwen Findlay, Daina Mabunda and Faiza Galdhari' NSA Gallery, Durban
and Albany Museum, Grahamstown, at the National Festival of the Arts.
1998 Exhibition sponsored by the Playhouse Company and Transnet for the 1999 South African Women�s Arts Festival
1997 NSA Gallery, Durban with Jeremy Wafer
1996 'Recent work by Bronwen Findlay' Elizabeth Gordon Gallery, Durban
1994 MA exhibition, Jack Heath Gallery, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg
2005 'Artists for Human Rights - Children's Rights', collaboration with poet Yvette Christiaanse, Durban Art Gallery
2004 Brett Kebble Art Awards, Cape Town International Convention Centre
'South African Art: Celebrating a decade of democracy' Salford Museum and Art Gallery, UK
2003 'Facets' Bamboo, Johannesburg
2002 'FNB Vita Art Awards' Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Aardklop, Potchefstroom
'Untold Tales of Magic: Abelumbi', curated by Jill Addleson, Durban Art Gallery
'Break the Silence - Artists for human rights', HIV Aids Billboard and print portfolio project, Durban Art Gallery
'Images of Self', Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunsfees, Curated by Clive van den Berg, Oudtshoorn
'The Hourglass Project: A woman's vision', print collaboration project curated by Malcolm Christian
Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown; Lowe Gallery, Atlanta, USA;
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg
1999 Artist in Residence, National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown
1998 'Bringing up Baby - Artists survey the reproductive body', National touring exhibition
curated by Terry Kurgan first installed at The Castle, Cape Town
'30S x 31E: Four Durban Artists' with Jeremy Wafer, Aidan Walsh and David Haigh
Lipschitz Gallery, Cape Town
'UTSAV Artists from India and South Africa' curated by Uma Prakash, Durban Art Gallery
'Music and Image', Caversham Print exhibition, National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown
'Stepping Stone Press 98' NSA, Durban
1995 'Transitions: Contemporary art from the Republic of South Africa', Bath, UK
'Siyawela: Love, loss and liberty' curated by Colin Richards, Wits Art Galleries and Birmingham City Art Museum