Connor Cullinan at Obert Contemporary
by Michael Smith
Cape Town artist Connor Cullinan's recent 'River of January' at Obert Contemporary is proof that a postmodern approach to painting can still yield fruit. Postmodern in the sense of downplaying some the usual mythology around painting, and reducing it to a system for creating images. Cullinan's explorations of myths and mythologies around sexuality and procreative forces are surprisingly rendered in muted pastel hues, with undeniably chalky surfaces. This is at odds with Penny Siopis' assertion in a recent issue of Art South Africa that paint is a carnal medium, glorious in its squishy viscerality, and still relevant because it allows for the autographic mark, the actual trace of the maker's hand. Siopis astutely identifies painting's attraction in a context (local and global) where the reprographic image (as located in photography, video, CGI etc) holds sway in both visual art and popular culture. What makes Cullinan's show of interest to me is how this distinction becomes blurred, how the painted images here are so obviously connected to computer-generated imaging, and how Cullinan's restrained use of paint as matter resists easy connection to sexuality and physicality.
In a manner comparable to that of sculptor and friend Paul Edmunds, Cullinan builds up his images with small repeated units. This structural similarity to patterning is not coincidental. Cullinan speaks of the capacity that patterns seem to have for reproducing themselves as the perfect vehicle for exploring concepts around procreation.
Cullinan's images work as conceptual objects due in large part to the tension established between the formal opulence of the patterns he employs and the restrained palette in which they are rendered. This coyness of colour allows the patterns to speak more clearly, and is frequently suggestive of a veil through which the images are being viewed. The patterns, in their own capacity, are taken to their logical conclusion, becoming obsessive and thereby enlivening the surfaces in the absence of strong colour.
Works like A and E and The Ark seem to reference Aubrey Beardsley, albeit obliquely. In their use of decorative form to render sexually charged imagery, they clearly relate to Beardsley. Of course, in the context of Victorian repression, Beardsley's works cut a swathe through hypocrisy and insularity, positively revelling as they did in elegant decoration and decadent imagery. The subtext of Beardsley's work was always provocation, coupled with a reclamation of vice as a form of liberation. By contrast, in our contemporary context of out-of-control sexual violence, Cullinan's paintings read more like reminders of the fragility and spirituality of sex than a set of libertine instigations.
An interesting component of these works is the connection of certain elements to the contemporary moment. While Beardsley and also Robert Venosa (the artist who designed Santana's incredible Abraxasalbum cover in the 70's) located their imagery in temporally ambiguous settings, Cullinan manages to, even insists on locating his figures in contemporary time. In particular, The Craft of the Seducer (an obvious riff on Theodore Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa) plays with our perceptions of the image by having its protagonists dressed in modern beach garb. As with the figures in a Muntean and Rosenblum painting, it is at once comical and compelling to see average Joes dealing with the weighty concepts of survival and existence. Thus Cullinan subtly questions the politics of poetics in painting, quietly asking why painting so often chooses to locate existential exploration in temporally distant realms. As Muntean and Rosenblum ask ironically, 'What is it about the past that makes the present by comparison seem so pallid and weightless?'.
Other works utilize similar formal devices for their construction but tread different conceptual ground: Mrs. Huckleby is an image derived from a photograph in an old National Geographic magazine. The photo and accompanying article told the story of this working class woman and her children who became blinded by mercury poisoning after eating chemically-treated grain. Cullinan's approach here amounts to a deliberate aestheticisation, raising issues around the consumption of images of suffering through mass media. Yet an undeniable empathy with Mrs. Huckleby and her children pervades this work, an icy pale blue stretching like cataracts across her eyes.
Though this last work does seem a bit separate from the others on show, it does suggest possible future applications for Cullinan's working process. Either way, I'm keen to see the next installment from this articulate young artist.
Opens: March 1
Closes: March 10
14 The High Street, Melrose Arch, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 684 1214
Hours: 11am - 7pm daily