SMAC Art Gallery 02

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Romantic or Empirical Perspectives

Wim Botha at STEVENSON in Cape Town

By Chad Rossouw
26 February - 05 April. 0 Comment(s)
Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön) (Detail)

Wim Botha
Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön) (Detail), 2014. Bronze Approx. 208 x 163 x 112cm.

I wanted to start this review with a chord by Beethoven, with maybe the sound of a storm and the clashing of tectonic plates. Because how else do you introduce a show so bathed with the sublime? This plain introduction will serve just as well though, because Wim Botha’s ‘Linear Perspectives’ seems to have something anti-climatic to it too. Not in any formal way, because without a doubt, Wim Botha is one of the most accomplished sculptors I can think of. His use of material in this show, the play between heavy and light, traditional and profane, is subtle and handled with finesse. His few mistakes (an art schoolish ink blob, some clunky painting) are a result of his experimentation, and are a sign that he is pushing himself as an artist, rather than resting on formulas.

Saying that ‘Linear Perspectives’ is a little anti-climatic is a little too harsh, for there is a conceptual ambiguity which is intriguing. Botha’s work is suffused with significance – the interrupted form, the broken line, the juxtaposition, the art references – and yet I struggle at times to follow what meaning underpins these signifiers, or if they merely use the rhetoric of significance to some other purpose. In this sense, Botha’s work is less Beethoven and more in the line of Wagner’s Tristan Chord: atonal, tense and discordant without any resolution.

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Untitled (Nebula 4)

Wim Botha
Untitled (Nebula 4)
2014
Carrara marble and black ink
57 x 26 x 25
© Copyright 2014, STEVENSON. All rights reserved.

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Walking through the exhibition, I was reminded of the work of the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni. Botha’s untitled cardboard birds seemed like a monochromatic Dynamism painting, like some of the sketches for Boccioni’s The City Rises. The impressive Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön) (2014), as well as some of the untitled wooden and polystyrene sculptural forms, seem to refer to Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, with its strange incongruity between material and form. Like Boccioni, Botha seems concerned with fighting the staticness of form. What is more, ‘The Futurist Manifesto’, with its overtures to the destruction of classical and Neo-classical art, seems to prefigure Botha’s disintegrating Laocoön and his disfigured marble busts.

However, this is where the analogy ends. Botha shares none of the utopianism; neither does his destruction seem motivated by the anger nor the idealism of the Italian movement. The careful scaling of the Laocoön, the considered work in marble, and the fact that techno-positivism seems to take very different forms one hundred years later, works against Futurist ideas.

Botha’s interruptions in the space, along with the distorted forms, seems to have a distinct affinity to the work of the painter Francis Bacon and perhaps (and this is a little stretch, I know, but the temptation to create a Bacon sandwich was too much) to his namesake Francis Bacon, the 17th Century empiricist philosopher.

Linear Perspectives

Wim Botha
Linear Perspectives
2014
Installation view

© Copyright 2014, STEVENSON. All rights reserved.

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In Botha one feels the great dialectical battle of the subjectivity of romanticism and its antithesis, the objectivity of empiricism. Romanticism celebrates two things: human subjectivity finding its apotheosis in emotional intensity, and the sublime as the human experience of the ineffable. In the 18th and 19th Century, these ideas found articulation in the ruin (the legible remnant acting as a historical repository) because they had an intensity of emotional evocation, and were an expression of the sublime by the interposition of the frail human subject against the power of Nature and Time. A corollary of this idea is that of the decayed object, the significant ‘fragment’, because of its very un-wholeness, its openness to interpretation, and its allegorical freedom. Throughout the exhibition, one feels that Botha comes close to these ideas. Or at least follows Bacon, that post-War successor to Romanticism, in his use of decaying and fragmented bodies, charged with highly significant emotion.

In 'Linear Perspectives', Botha uses both the Romantic and the expressionist fragment, with both the fragmented object and the fragmented body. Some, like Laocoön, are a complex interplay of multiple fragments. The original his fragmentary form is based on, Laocoön and his Sons, is already a highly significant ruin, both literally and metaphorically, in that it is considered as an artistic ideal, in which it stands in for a constellation of ideas around classicism and art-making, and all that is absent from the modern. The last point is significant, because both the Romantic and expressionist fragment operate with this lack: not that the rest of the fragment is missing, but that the fragment stands in for a whole which is missing in modern life - some desire for authenticity.

Here, however, is where Botha bowls some reverse-swing, and where I feel a sense of the ambiguous anti-climax. Botha’s use of materials - cardboard, polystyrene, pine - are highly particular. These throw-away substances are synonymous with our current industrialized, rationalized, empirical society (thus forming the Bacon sandwich mentioned above). By using them he is ironizing his expressive and Romantic impulses, and replacing them with a critical view on the rhetoric of ruin, fragments and classicism. If this is the case, then all the epic signification and high drama cover a relatively simple criticism. Alternatively, by turning these modern materials into highly significant fragments, by digging into them, by gouging at their surfaces, he is trying to recoup some sense of lost authenticity. In which case, it’s a lost cause.