Johannes Phokela at the KZNSA
by Julian Brown
'Compendium' is Johannes Phokela's first show in Durban, after 15 years of his professional career, and thus comes garlanded in expectations. Phokela's work is known for its beautiful painting, its re-imagined versions of Dutch and Flemish Old Masters' works, the anachronisms and black faces smuggled into late medieval European scenes, and some garish red noses scattered incongruously throughout. All of these characteristic traits are referred to in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, and again in almost every interview we've read this week. It is something of a surprise, then, to notice that these elements are present only in a small portion of the works at the KZNSA.
Red noses are obvious on only one piece, forced into the hollow nasal cavities of the three bronze skulls that make up Gold, Silver, Bronze Medals (2005). The Dutch Masters are re-interpreted in three painted works: Say Cheese (2002), Customs and Excise (2005), and Tender, Loving Care (2006). The remainder of the works on show, notably the four screen-printed panels of Longitude(2005) and the eight panels of the Head on Collar series (2006), refuse to fit into these neat expectations: they are not closely painted in glossy oils, they do not use imitation to reinterpret, and they do not deploy the anachronism and symbolism of Phokela's better known paintings. They are comparatively rough works.
The Head on Collar series replaces the lush style of painting with which Phokela has become identified with a looser, messier style. Each image is built from the same template: a rectangular canvas painted in brown or white is overlaid with a cameo-like oval in a contrasting colour. Within that oval sits a head-and-shoulders portrait of a featureless, faceless man: clothes are needed to make these men. They wear ruffled collars, wide collars, thin collars with sashes, feathered hats and curled mitres.
These are described as 'oil sketches' rather than as paintings, and their sketch-like quality is evident throughout. They have all been painted using a limited palette: dark browns, blacks and whites dominate, with a few accents in red and blue. The paint has been allowed to splash from section to section: a brown background smears into the white silhouette of a face, red lines drip unevenly from a shirt into a muddy background. On one canvas the spray from a broad white paintbrush can be seen around the edges of its white oval, bright against the brown. Indeed, the strokes and smears of Phokela's paintbrush are surprisingly visible in these works: in some cases they imprint patterns on the background, but in others the roughness seems incomplete rather than intentional. There is an energy about these brushstrokes that is concealed beneath the glaze of the more perfect, polished and finished paintings that have made his name.
This energy carries over into some of the latter works, however. The backgrounds of the three panels of Tender, Loving Care are painted with a similar force. Massed clouds of background colour - again, principally blacks and browns - are piled over and against each other and the wide brushstrokes are clearly visible.
The raw technique of these backgrounds contrasts with the polished figures at their centres. Laden with symbols, a bundled group of men and women are led by the promise of a green note always floating just ahead of them; a monk examines a hunk of lamb, and a woman offers a red ball in exchange for parrots. The forms of these paintings seem to suggest allegories, but the symbolism is untrammelled and incoherent. In an otherwise apparently medieval scene, the monk's hunk of lamb is stamped with a blue mark. At the base of one image is a scroll, filled with the spikes and hexagons of gothic print, but there are no letters and no words discernable. Unlike in allegories, there is no consistent or coherent set of symbols at play, and no solution to the puzzles suggested in the work.
It is equally difficult to interpret the white lines with which Phokela subdivides his paintings: in some works, such as Say Cheese or Tender, Loving Care these white lines seem to trace frames within the confines of the image. In these, a single white rectangle, with either rounded or sharp corners, is superimposed on the image - which continues outside of the boundaries represented by these lines. In other works, however, notably Customs and Excise and Testing Equipment, the lines seem to serve different purposes. In Customs and Excise the white lines mark out a series of boxes within the image, while in Testing Equipment the lines form a grid across the entire image, dividing it into segments. In these two cases, the divisions seem reminiscent less of frames than of the grids used in 'how-to-paint' books, cutting each image up into manageable sections for imitation and instruction. It is difficult - if not impossible - to say what these lines 'mean' from one painting to another.
Despite Phokela's willingness to explain his inspiration and ideas in numerous interviews his work resists easy interpretation. Even the artist's own descriptions cannot be fully sufficient. As soon as any given interpretation is suggested - whether allegorical, art historical, or political - its limits become obvious; contradictory impulses within the images come to fore, and the puzzle remains insoluble.This may be at the heart of the success of these images: they provoke thought and argument, and refuse to resolve neatly. The only certain ground is the paint itself, and the brushstrokes that show us that these works have been cleverly and skilfully constructed.
The KZNSA Gallery has scored something of a coup by bringing Phokela's work to Durban in collaboration with Gallery Momo, and the impact of this provocative show will linger after the works have been taken off its walls.
Julian Brown is a PhD candidate at Oxford University, England. He lives in Oxford and Durban
Opens: October 23
Closes: November 11
The KZNSA Gallery
166 Bulwer Road, Glenwood, Durban
Tel: (031) 202 3686
Fax: (031) 201 8051
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