Andrew Putter at The University of Cape Town’s Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA)By Lloyd Pollak
20 October - 21 October. 0 Comment(s)
The fly-by-night, two-day exhibition ‘Sketch Assembly’, held in the art gallery at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in late October was the brainchild of Andrew Putter. The project was designed expressly to fulfill an educational function, and teach aspirant artists how to develop a conceptual idea and turn it into a reality. Putter was merely the facilitator, and mock-ups of the original poster in which he solicited collaborators indicate how he recruited his team of thirty young students from art, design and fashion schools. His background as a much loved, award-winning art teacher equipped him perfectly for this task, and although always on hand with guidance and advice, he took a back seat as far as the actual art-making was concerned. ‘Sketch Assembly’ thus became a model of the collaborative ideal, producing aesthetic results that do credit to both Putter’s teaching, and his choice of gifted participants, for the show challenges our constructs of the masterpiece, genius and originality with far greater cogency than Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and other Parisian virtuosos of impenetrably opaque prose.
Masterpieces tend to conceal their origins. In the art gallery they materialize ex nihilo. Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, Turner’s Dido Building Carthage and Ingres’ Madame Moitessier at London’s National Gallery are presented so as to obliterate their history, and occlude the endless sketches, drafts, revisions and changes of heart involved in their making. The viewer is persuaded that the canvas before him corresponds to some blinding flash of inspiration, or that it is the result of an inexorable logical process which, like a Euclidean theorem, advanced, step by step towards one sole possible conclusion.
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‘Sketch Assembly’ reveals that there is nothing inevitable or syllogistic about art-making. Creation occurs arbitrarily, and it is a matter of trial and error. The show is exceptional inasmuch as preparatory drafts, models and tests usurp the role of full-blown finished works of art, for even the most resolved creations, four elaborately-staged photographic tableaux, remain tentative and provisional, mere stops on the road to finality, but not the ultimate destination.
Two sources underpin the work. The first is the geselschapje or Merry Company, a 17th century Dutch genre developed by Buytewech, van De Velde and Dirck Hals, which revolves around elegant young swells and belles eating, drinking, dancing and pitching the woo to music.
‘Sketch Assembly’ pastiches the Merry Company, relocating it at the tip of Africa, and replacing its purely mono-racial scenarios with conjectural flirtatious contacts between the young Dutch East India Company gentry and Khoikhoin tribes-people. This is a portrayal of a fictive golden age in which the interaction between the Dutch and the indigenes is imagined to be benign and mutually enriching, giving rise to a hybridized culture that manifested visually in costume, jewelry, make-up and hair-styling.
The second source consists of a few anonymous drawings from the National Library of South Africa, depicting the Khoikhoin during the late 17th century when their culture remained fairly intact. They thus provide an accurate reference on the minutiae of Khoi self-presentation.
The gallery space is organized so as to suggest a casual visit to a studio displaying work-in-progress. Presentation is makeshift and pro tem. Nothing is framed. The information panels are not printed, but hand-written. Cheap and flimsy postcards, Photostats, scribbled diary entries and diagrams are simply pinned or taped to the wall.
Cost-cutting and make-do was the rule. Instead of commissioning expensive costumes, textiles, ruffs, cuffs and lace were simulated in paper, cardboard and doilies. Rather than build sets, the team created small architectural models, and digitally dropped them behind the cut-out photographs of the cast. Painted textures were scanned and composited onto the set in a similar manner.
Photographs taken purely to resolve practical problems, like that of two males standing within the digitally dropped-in set, generate considerable intrigue. The absence of shadows, the crudely cut out anatomical outlines, and the hands that do not convincingly touch, place the image beyond our normal frame of reference, making it strangely compelling.
However by far the most authoritative and arresting image is Hand on Boob (all four works are given crudely practical working titles) which updates a 17th century engraving of a Merry Company. The composition is dominated by a young woman of a decisive majesty. An ostrich egg substitutes for the mirror, and many other changes indigenize the Dutch original. The lady mulls over the proposition that her would-be seducer whispers into her ear, and the spot-lit egg, the single most brightly-lit and salient element, supplies a context for her thoughts.
The egg, an ancient Christian symbol of creation, resurrection and the Virgin birth, becomes emblematic of racial and cultural cross-pollination and its rich future possibilities. It is obvious that the damsel with the grave reflective gaze is fully conscious of her potential role as an agent of momentous historical change. She is portrayed in the act of deciding whether or not she should assume this responsibility, and her reluctance reminds us of the Virgin Mary in many an Annunciation.
The image is unresolved. The bosky setting and the beach are not integrated: two rival systems of lighting coexist, and the rich colours of the garments are applied to a silvery grisaille background. Is this a shortcoming, or do the incongruities and contradictions underline the patently confected character of this luscious piece of artifice?
The work which appropriates Goltzius’ compositional schema answers to Barthes’ thesis inasmuch at it combines pre-existing images, norms, conventions and devices in new ways in a photograph taken by a professional, rather than its supposed creator or creators. Reader, is this art? Or is it a mere tissue of quotations from art history and ethnography collaged together by the post-modern ‘artist’ who is reduced to the status of a découpagiste? I leave the ball in your court.