Graduate shows at Michaelis School of Fine Art and the University of Stellenbosch
by Tavish McIntosh
Fine Art students are well briefed on the concerns governing contemporary art: the focus on identity, investigations into new media and the overarching concern with the 'contemporary moment'. And after many earnest statements about the deeper meaning of art, it came as a relief to hear one UCT graduand simply describe his exhibition in his artist's statement as 'a jol'. It is one of the strengths demonstrated by the 2006 Michaelis Graduate Exhibition and Stellenbosch University's graduate show entitled 'Section 53' that both institutions enable young artists to produce art of such diversity and wide-ranging appeal. But what remained pervasive was a critical interaction with the dominant visual tradition. Great art consistently taps into the fault lines of society, and many of these students have assimilated the necessary tools to do just this.
Wynand Saayman from Stellenbosch University juxtaposed documentary techniques with a performative approach in order to investigate the nature of Afrikaner masculinity. Documenting the performance of culture and identity, his carefully constructed and empathetic work enables the subjects to consider and construct their own self-mythology. In Afrikaners N7, Garies, Saayman photographs the subjects, all men, each holding a measuring stick. Alongside are extracts of personal information. The interaction between man and measurement is fascinating, revealing an unconscious process of self-construction often informed by the ideology of military correctness (not to mention issues around size). Simultaneously, Saayman plays with the insidious stereotypes that underpin this culture.
In contrast to this social critique, the Michaelis Prize winner Fabian Saptouw analysed the fundamentals of the visual tradition by laboriously unravelling and re-weaving a section of canvas. Each unravelled thread was numbered and re-woven in accordance with the original structure. This time-consuming and futile labour was documented by CCTV. Saptouw pared down the components of the traditional painting in order to assert an authentic engagement with materials.
Fellow UCT student Daniel Popper upheld a more traditional approach to the canvas with his large-scale paintings, also exhibited on the ground floor of the Michaelis building. These works explored the ambiguous and often insecure situation of the school-bound child. But it is his assured manipulation of the medium and severe but sumptuous use of colour that bode well for the future of this tradition.
Another contribution characterised by remarkable technical prowess and aesthetic sensitivity was that of UCT's Catherine Price. This artist used the delicate process of slip-casting to produce porcelain tupperware, soap-dishes and cumbersome sinks to bring home the abject process of meat preparation. In a softly lit antechamber, large white sinks appeared strangely voluptuous and feminine; their incongruous suspension from a row of butcher's hooks created an interesting visual contrast that highlighted society's appetite for both beauty and cruelty.
In Julia Randle's highly suggestive horse frottages, exhibited in UCT's Rosedale Building, the subject of animals received a rather different treatment. Randle's simplistic process consisted of placing a canvas between the horse and saddle before riding in order to produce a rubbing. The hairy impression was rampant with sexual innuendo, even scenting the exhibition with a distinctly animal aroma.
UCT's Amelia Smith upheld the printing tradition with her layering of transparent photographs. In 28 Pierneef Paintings, she superimposed images of all 28 paintings one upon the other to convincingly deconstruct the formulaic approach that this modernist adopted. Use of this accumulative technique allowed the fundamental elements of the pictorial language to shine through.
Photography at both Michaelis and Stellenbosch was of a consistently high standard, demonstrating the importance of this medium for young artists. Michaelis student Dale Washkansky's harshly discordant photographs were especially convincing. His exercise in dark-room collage highlighted an incongruent relationship between the architecture of hallowed spaces and the sexual body. The result was a brilliant confrontation that conveyed the complexity of our interaction with the sacred. This outstanding photographic contribution was backed up by the understated work of William Esposito and the documented performances of Husain Essop. At Stellenbosch, Jeanine Bresler's indistinct photographs left a haunting impression.
Graduate exhibitions are vital gauges for the future of critical thinking within the arts because they provide the opportunity to view art that is produced away from the harsh economics of the art market. However, some obeisance must be made to commerce. With this in mind, it was encouraging to see that while many students at Michaelis and Stellenbosch utilised this opportunity to demonstrate their ability to operate within the commercial sphere, there was a good representation of deep explorations of the relationships between artist and material, subject or context (temporal, political, environmental) and quirky takes on popular tastes. For those willing to slog through the Michaelis show and trek out to the one at Stellenbosch, there was much to delight in. Footsore, sunburnt and sweaty, I found quite a cache.
Tavish McIntosh is a Master's student at the University of Cape Town's Art History Department
Michaelis Graduate Exhibition:
Opened: December 6
Closes: December 20
Michaelis School of Fine Art
35-37 Orange Street, Gardens
Tel: (021) 480 7111
Hours: Mon - Fri 9am -5pm
Opened: November 24
Closes: February 10
Sasol Art Museum
52 Ryneveld Street, Stellenbosch
Tel: (021) 808 3660
Hours: Tue - Fri 9am - 4.30pm, Sat 9am - 4pm