Archive: Issue No. 124, December 2007

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William Adolphe Bougeureau

William Adolphe Bougeureau
The Birth of Venus 1879

Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli

Saartjie Baartman

Saartjie Baartman

Cara Van der Westhuizen

Cara Van der Westhuizen

Cara Van Der Westhuizen at Bell-Roberts
by Clare Butcher

'Art's not allowed to be this beautiful', said a friend when confronted by Van Der Westhuizen's Inside Out, just one of the artist's 19 lithographs on glass in 'Venus Revisited' at Bell-Roberts. This marks Van der Westhuizen's first solo show since her Master's graduation with a double distinction in printmaking at Michaelis School of Fine Arts. Quietly imposing glass and custom-made furniture pieces transform the cube of the contemporary art gallery into an almost antiquated museum display of curiosity cabinets. The curiosity? Female bodies.

Van der Westhuizen's work cannot escape its ideological alignment with the new lens applied to representations of women's bodies since the 70s, explored most famously by South African-born Griselda Pollock. Artists such as Judy Chicago posed initially shocking challenges to the male dominated space of academic art practice and gallery display. The question now is whether Van der Westhuizen's masking of this formerly contentious subject matter with the demure attractiveness of her labour-intensive pieces aspires to avoid or address these same issues of beauty and femininity.

Inspired by a long history of printmaking, the artist gleans from texts on fecundity and female anatomy - all centuries old, from botanical, fine art and mythical sources - layering these on what she sees as the transparent yet reflective 'palimpsest' of glass panes. Some lithographs, such as Mirror Me, are tenuously positioned above her boudoir-style white cabinets, others are hidden, within their drawers inviting viewers to physically unpack the artist's statements. Still more may be found folded within shutter-like window frames placed on the walls (the diptych Interieur and Exterieur (2007) for example).

The suggestion of a hide-and-seek ritual lies beneath the surface, only frustrating the visitor as the seeking process exposes another thin veneer of ephemeral but impenetrable glass. Van der Westhuizen does not want her collection to be political and yet it is not so much beautiful, as beauty-full, where artistic dissection of the Beauty Myth is carried out ad infinitum, perhaps drawing more attention to feminist issues than she anticipates.

Hosts of iconic images such as flies, skulls and flowers, like those in 17th Century Dutch still life painting, busy Van der Westhuizen's lithographs, while nude females in poses from the Classical Period (and the Neo-Classical Bouguereau's Birth of Venus) dominate this artist's re-visiting of Venus throughout the history of art and science. She says the repetition of these motifs plays on preconceived expectations of beauty in art and the ways this has been inextricably linked with the female form.

The transparency of Van der Westhuizen's glass lithographs does not satisfy the multi-layered complexity of the works' broader ideological context. The shock factor of the collection lies in the apparent ignorance adopted by the artist in her treatment of the issues raised by her attractive pieces. A viewer could easily make the mistake of interpreting Van der Westhuizen's motives as a desire to renegotiate the subjection of the female anatomy to male ideals throughout Western discourse, rather than, what is really the case, merely a 'revisiting' of those projections.

Smoke and mirrors, however, cannot obscure the current critical condition of the female body as it appears in the work of white, female art practitioners in South Africa. Van der Westhuizen's Body of Text aligns itself with a noticeable trend in the work of other women artists working locally, where antiquarian, almost Eurocentric, imagery provides the aesthetic. These nostalgic renderings employ almost sentimental, feminine, domestic decorative arts and situate comments in such styles as befit the traditions of Western 19th Century art history and not the trends of the global 21st. While this may merely reflect the appropriating so synonymous with postmodernity, it creates a distance, both temporally and geographically, from the works' original context of creation and display, removing these perspectives, particularly those of Van der Westhuizen, from the immediacy of current South African artistic conversations.

By merely re-presenting the dominant artistic narrative of female stereotypes, Van der Westhuizen, consciously or unconsciously reveals the gaps in that story. Her own voice as an individual is one of them. Particularly in her piece, Duality, Van der Westhuizen can be seen acting as translator of the European Classical vocabulary as she painstakingly justifies the presence of the thistle in her work, defining its meaning in Greek mythology as 'love eternal'. The ambiguous originality of assembling these various symbols, icons and textual fragments on the part of the artist, must be acknowledged. However, the works' ornamentality subsumes any deeper curiosity regarding the subject matter of the female form.

As public culture theorist Achille Mbembe describes, beauty as an ideal and as a material coexist in this 'dual dimension' and it is inappropriate to speak of 'beauty' without including its opposite - 'the beauty of ugliness'. While this view of contemporary creative practice coincides with the idea that art is no longer allowed simply to be this beautiful, it could also hail the reality that many practitioners are tired of politically correct, ugly art and wish to explore ideological contradictions in aesthetically pleasing ways.

The poor lighting in the gallery unintentionally assists an alternate reading in that the shadows cast through the works onto the walls behind signal the presence of other layers of meaning not included in Van der Westhuizen's revisiting of Eurocentric visions of the Venus myth. The provocative duality of beauty spoken of by Mbembe lies in the knowledge that every text possesses a shadow, a notion well articulated by Roland Barthes. And in a post-colonial and postmodern context within which 'Venus Revisited' appears, it is the shadow of received beauty myths translated.

The attractively, almost overwhelmingly, multi-layered material approach of this body of work sets it up for an ironically one-dimensional viewing experience. Shadows of alternate readings remain hovering, like writing on the wall, reminding viewers of the historical violence which created and transported these texts into contemporary artistic use. However, the palatability of Van der Westhuizen's nostalgic cabinets contains the explosive curiosity of her subject matter behind glass, ensuring that viewers merely revisit rather than renegotiate the politics of Venus.

Opens: September 19
Closes: October 10

Bell-Roberts Contemporary
89 Bree Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1100
Fax: (021) 423 3135
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 10am - 2pm