Brendhan Dickerson at Erdmann Contemporary
by Tavish McIntosh
In 'Living Conditioned' the two aspects of Brendhan Dickerson's oeuvre are kept noticeably separate, both spatially and thematically. Dickerson is known for his carefully balanced, wrought iron assemblages, whose weighty materiality is subverted by the delicate three-dimensional line-work. The second aspect of his oeuvre is his focus on performativity, which comes to the fore in his fire sculptures. Based on his wrought iron armatures, these exist only momentarily before burning out. Both of these aspects are combined in his show at Erdmann Contemporary, but the success with which the two aspects are juxtaposed is debatable.
The former is represented by sculptures that combine wrought iron with carved jacaranda and the latter through extensive photographic documentation. 'Living Conditioned', ostensibly the title of the entire exhibition, in reality encompasses only the sculptural works which deal with the enculturation of gender stereotypes. Succession debate is a series of small format photographs that documents a performance and echoes some of the motifs of 'Living Conditioned' - guns and human figures - but never interacts meaningfully with the central sculptural element.
The placement of the sculptures is judiciously thought out and the initial effect of the three sculptures' interaction is engaging. When I came to the exhibition I was pleased with the material fact of large well-crafted sculptures. The jacaranda sculpture Mixed Marriage is an interesting sexual hybrid, made up of both male and female torsos pulling away from each other. But despite the evidence of hard work and labour throughout the show, there was no indication that Dickerson had given much thought to the intellectual content of the exhibition. After a time I realised I was being had. The constructed jacaranda sculptures and wrought iron assemblages which are the main focus of the exhibition represent only the most superficial attempt to engage with gender identity.
In Cannon fodder, a carved baby boy is transfixed by the battery of cultural artillery. Stemming from his hand, a baby's bottle leads to the familiar curve of the coke bottle which in turn leads to the ubiquitous bottle of 'dop'. Other symbols of masculinity and/or contemporary depravity spring from his head, hands, heart, umbilicus and anus. The continuity between innocent victim and perpetrator was represented with far more success in Andries Botha's 1981 sculpture Baby. Dickerson inverts the standard modus operandi of contemporary artists - transforming trite ideas into serious sculptures rather than taking grand ideas and subverting them with a suitably hackneyed representation.
The work and dedication put into realising the material form disguised a superficial engagement with the topic. Now most contemporary art forthrightly declares its shallow stature, but that is not the case here. These sculptures refer to the manifold traditions of fine art, their attention to detail is superb and their rendering of form in space is interesting. The Conditioning Love sculpture, a wrought iron figure of a young girl, is realised with consummate skill. The simple lines of the figure in space are rendered with a touching delicacy, but the addition of tokens of femininity (rose, dust-pan, ring, teapot, cosmetic compact) latched onto the ends of each lengthy strand of hair is a tired ploy. Skilful rendering belies the facile commentary on gender identity. The lactating hound that creeps along the ground at the girl's foot is far more interesting. The minimal lines capture the subservient hunch of the drooping shoulders, the weight of the engorged teats and the protective tail wrapped between the legs. Less didactic and grandiose than the figure of the girl, the hound alludes to the societal demands of femininity (fulfilling a faithful and protective maternal role) with far more success.
Why is one work more successful than the other? For me, the subtlety of the latter allows the viewer to imaginatively impute a meaning, rather than being submitted to a lecture on the basic premise of identity and performativity debates. Far be it from me to deny art its important didactic role - a tradition that extends back to the Dark Ages - but as Peter Parker (when he accepted the mantle of Spiderman) said: 'With power comes great responsibility'. And the responsibility artists undertake is to engage with society in a thought-provoking and challenging manner. Not too much to ask I would have thought.
Opens: September 6
Closes: September 29