Carol-anne Gainer at the Bell-Roberts
by Linda Stupart
1. showing the wearing effects of overwork or care or suffering; 'looking careworn as she bent over her mending'; 'her face was drawn and haggard from sleeplessness'; 'that raddled but still noble face'; 'shocked to see the worn look of his handsome young face'- Charles Dickens [syn: careworn]
2. having the curtains or draperies closed or pulled shut; 'the drawn draperies kept direct sunlight from fading the rug'
The very word 'drawn', as defined above, suggests a tragic withdrawal, a closing of interior space, but it also has connotations of action, of the violent male-defined movement of 'drawing a sword' for example, to pull out (as from a well), or to drag or force in a direction. It is these seemingly contrasting notions of public and private, frailty and violence, and longing and fear that permeate Carol-anne Gainer's 'Drawn'.
Gainer's show negotiates the pathos of nostalgia, unease of the domestic and the violence of the everyday with a re-occurrence of her air vents, complimented by asurprisingly pretty series of prints, nickel-plated childhood mementos, intense drawings and videos of destruction.
The exhibition opens with a corridor of super-slick digital prints of ceramic animal figurines that typify 'Sweet Kitsch', an aesthetically and morally abhorrent genre of commodified sentimentality. Though these images form a backdrop from which the rest of the show steps forward, I find the lack of criticality within these images themselves troubling. This neat series of cutesy ceramics on grey or white background have a familiarity that comes with current notions of nostalgia and thus, I feel, are very easily overlooked as yet another trendy magazine spread. This disappointment struck me particularly as I wondered what these highly evocative objects gained from their photographic mediation: are they revered here, made alien, or set up as fine art objects? Why not exhibit the objects themselves? The coolness of these images, both in terms of their trendiness and cold neutrality, leaves them short of the mark for me.
Similarly disappointing, as singular works, were some of the nickel- and bronze-plated toys and decorations. In particular I found that Birds, a series of very beautiful nickel-plated decorative birds mounted on a wall, detracts from the show's strengths. The oxidation of the sculptures and their awkward, rough finish suggests an aging, overuse and a burial that lends the objects a sadness and disquietude (the latter gleaned largely from the reference to the Alfred Hitchcock movie). Despite their pathos, however, this very pretty work, which took up a large section of wall, fell too squarely into a well established Cape Town art and design thematic to have any impact on my Cape Town art and design sensibilities. Visions of last summer's Long Street fashion prints, whatiftheworld's Neighbourgoods Market and bad Gina Waldman works inevitably arose.
A nickel-plated piece that fares better is the Elephant that serves in part as poignant memorial to the toy elephant in the Blue Elly video work. The latter was the highlight of the show for me. Here we see a plastic elephant toy being murderously flung against a wall, all in excruciating slow motion that suggests, more than a child's temper tantrum, a calculated methodical destruction. As the fragility of the toy elephant is exposed through his (presumably his, it is blue) destruction so is the tenuousness of the innocence, domesticity and safety that he represents.
This seemingly minor act of violence comes to represent not only the actual acts of violence that are often perpetuated against the young and innocent, but also suggests that innocence itself is an adult construct that, perhaps, was never really endemic to childhood at all. Certainly the work critiques that ever disappointing looking back of nostalgia, literally shattering what appears to be a hard worn, much handled and over-loved toy.
Blue Elly, as well as other pieces such as the bronze-plated Ribbon, Vent and the obsessive drawing of repeating text, More than A Dozen Times overpower the banality of some of the other pieces, and provide the exhibition with a thread that is both violent and disturbing, though never explicitly so.
Vent with its black velvet and satin seems to seal the domestic interior like a coffin. The piece is a testament to the claustrophobia that often envelops the home environment where those inside are suffocated, with love or fear, until they are unable to leave this space behind. Ribbon threatens to cut the seamstress or schoolgirl as she ties a bow, but, with the use of bronze, also memorialises their positions in the home, while Gainer's frantic drawings are stuck between the urge to faithfully reproduce and to just get away.
Despite my earlier criticisms then, 'Drawn' exists as a cohesive and sometimes arresting show. My disappointment in some of the works however, is one that I often throw at exhibitions: too pretty, too easy. A label that is certainly overly critical in the case of 'Drawn' but resides in a sentence that I wrote in a review of Gainer's 2005 show in the same gallery: 'Sure, there are a lot of young trendy women artists engaging in gender issues through pretty, amicable nostalgia, but a woman peeing on paper is something else altogether'. Now, although I am aware that, of course, nostalgia, territory and all sorts of feminist concerns are intrinsically linked, I had hoped that Gainer would produce work that was explicitly, or even implicitly, unsettling on some level, instead of approaching a sameness that handicaps the work, rendering it, at times, just too easy to overlook.
Opened: August 22
Closed: September 15