Penny Siopis at Michael Stevenson
by Tambudzai LaVerne Sibanda
'Lasso', Penny Siopis' most recent exhibition at Michael Stevenson could at first sight be described as a disturbing assault of intimate narratives that express the 'poetics of vulnerability'. Characteristically, the series of paintings is heavy with emotion, each existing as a human tableau that speaks a language of pain experienced by victims of extreme trauma. Focusing on the stories of disempowered women and children, Siopis unapologetically opens up uncomfortable conversations that allude to childhood sexual and physical abuse as well as feelings of displacement and prejudice that many women are forced to experience at the hands of others.
Bearing strong similarities to Edvard Munch's famous The Scream, Siopis' disembodied head in Deep becomes a poignant protest; the artist aptly captures the depth of grief and anguish that marks a tortured psyche. It is this sense of total desperation and intuitive need to voice one's pain that reverberates loudly throughout the exhibition. Entangled in a mesh of raw feelings of loneliness, fear, love, sexual passion and death, Lasso depicts a woman crippled by her thoughts. With only rudimentary impressions of her face and figure built from washes of red ink, the dominant figure represents a plethora of women the world over - her movements are slow and awkward and are suggestive of a violent physical encounter that has left her something between a women and an animal. Maintaining her characteristic pink and scarlet tones, evocative of blood emanating from open wounds, the image tells the story of a woman who has been lassoed like a limp buck, reduced to all fours, left defeated and robbed of all resolve to fight. Exposed to the trauma of extreme abuse, a person's soul is left torn and depersonalised.
In Chill Siopis captures a young person lying stiffly next to what appears to be a man in a state of sexual ecstasy .The young woman chilled by the experience claims her agency by allowing her soul, depicted as a smudged figure erupting from her body, to be displaced if only momentarily from her body, entering a liminal space of existence and refuge. Using a similar image rendered on a larger canvas with a richer, textured palette of deep oranges and fuchsia, Bed captures the figure lying on a richly ornate quilt that resembles a bed of roses. The artist depicts a girl's small frame suffocating in an atmosphere of deathly passion that licks up into flames in Monument; the mattress, a grave-like foundation, leaves the figure a deathly pale colour. Although still clinically alive, it is evident that, 'a human being died last night'. Siopis' captions are short and terse and contribute to the contradictions of her subject's narratives.
By highlighting the careful, shameful concealment of the women's genitalia by her hands in Love, an aerial view of a sleeping couple, the viewer is left with a sick feeling that the spiritually and emotionally fulfilling activities of lovemaking have been reduced to meaningless barbaric acts. The woman's 'lover' who sleeps alongside her appears disinterested and one questions what preceded this image to render the couple so frigid and passionless. From wall to wall one is assuaged by image after image that speaks about skewed notions of love and passion, often morphing into something dangerous and even deathly. Using a grammar of pornography, in Strip and Limbo, Siopis depicts images of pubescent boys and young girls with faces matured by their painful life histories. The sickly pink children standing naked and vulnerable in a sea of whiteness makes it doubtful that anything innocent and wholesome could emerge from these encounters with the voyeur. By providing only the barest of details, the artist leaves the viewer to imagine for themselves an obvious end for these children, the exposure to heinous acts of sexual violation. By forcing us too to become voyeurs to these acts, the artist anticipates our feelings of revulsion. In Slave, Bound and Mask, Siopis alludes to the dirty games paedophiles engage in with their young victims - games that have long since ceased to be fun and innocent.
Siopis has always taken delight in the materiality of her work, evidenced here by her manipulation of texture and surface using viscous glue and enamel. The film of polished glue once dry resembles the surface of human skin that is vulnerable and prone to tearing. By allowing the paint and glue to curdle and drip beyond the edge of her surfaces, the artist successfully visualises the excesses of emotion that characterises her protagonists. While enamel applied to ink or paint serves to sharpen the image, it also allows the emotions and tensions that exist within each character to be heightened.
Siopis is known for having introduced into her work concerns around emotional and physical estrangement that often follow a traumatic event. She inserts Curl into the show to expose the vulnerabilities of child survivors of the radioactive explosion at Chernobyl in Russia in the 80s. Born with grave 'deformities' of their limbs these children's atrophied extremities render them modern day 'freaks'; despite obvious signs of innocence as evidenced in furled toes and relaxed, awkward poses, the children have become a subject of scrutiny and investigation for magazines such as National Geographic. Obvious links can be made between this work and Slings and Arrows, an image of an animal-human hybrid wounded by arrows. To those familiar with Siopis' previous work it might appear as if Pink-pinky a 'half-animal, half human, half woman, half nothing' has paid a visit. Siopis' personae vividly describe the monster-like figures into which we morph, somewhat human, somewhat animal, that find solace in a third space under extreme duress.
In the light of rising xenophobic sentiments in the country, Siopis contributes to ongoing conversations around aliens and refugees occupying South African land with a 2 minute video entitled Pray. Superimposing new subtitles onto old footage, the brief digital projection narrates an awkward story of a family's brief visit to the Kruger National Park, and their fear of being trapped and ridiculed like animals. In a seemingly incongruent insert into a very coherent body of painting, Siopis affirms her love of film and need to comment on the vulnerabilities and strangeness of the 'other'.
Thoroughly considered, 'Lasso' represents a unique alchemy of film and paintings that documents the artist's obvious obsession with the after-effects and the human imprint that outlive trauma, death, rape, disaster, xenophobia and isolation. While emotionally arresting and violent images such as Tremor, Blood and Break capture the emotional and spiritual dislocation and rupture of a person's soul after abuse, Lull, Smother and Survivor speak of very different emotions, like the cathartic release after emerging from the woods of sickness and near-death experiences.
Opens: September 20
Closes: October 20
Michael Stevenson Gallery
Hill House, De Smidt Street, Green Point
Tel: (021) 421 2575
Fax: (021) 421 2578
Hours: Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm