Celebration of Paint

Journey to heart of an adventurous, yet serious collection
Lucinda Jolly | Cape Times, 09 April 2013

What do you do with a personal collection of about 500 diverse South African artworks? Store them in a vault out of sight? No. You invest in a piece of property specially to house them. In this instance, a double-volume, high-ceilinged, white Victorian confection complete with broekie-lace of wrought iron and beautifully buffed wooden floors. Where there was once a garden, you create a modern section all white with light from clerestory windows, putty coloured pigmented cement floors and a small glassed-off mezzanine. But gallery-type artwork needs to be seen not just by you and yours. It longs for and must have a wider audience. In a generous philanthropic gesture, you decide to share it with the public.

Well, that’s what executive chairman of RE:CM and avid art collector Piet Viljoen has done. Subject as Matter is his first showing. It’s a generous first act, with more to follow every six months or so. To achieve this, Viljoen needed a curator. Enter Penny Siopis. Siopis is bird-bone fine with a good head of thick hair and dark eyes bright with intelligence and warmth. On the day I hook up with her she is wearing a bright coloured shirt which seems to float around and contain her in a sherbet-coloured, protective flame.

Siopis isn’t sure why Viljoen chose her as the curator of the exhibition. Other than she is an established artist, he owns and likes her work and, of course, she has heaps of academic credibility.

While sifting through his vast “adventurous yet serious” collection from Avant Car Guard to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, she was looking for the “heart of” the collection. Recognising Viljoen’s fascination with various interpretations of the human as subject matter, the grounded title, Subject as Matter was conceived.

The term “materiality” features strongly in the lexicon of thinking and actual manifestation of the work on exhibit. It references how works were made and underlines how process is as important as pictorial concept. Perhaps this is most easily seen in Georgina Gatrix’s Mr Nice to Meet You and Please call Me. Both revel in the sheer stuff of paint. Childlike in their celebration of depth, texture and colour that paint can provide, they emit a strangely desperate and darkly humorous energy which make the viewer laugh and squirm uncomfortably.

Identity is another keyword in this exhibition, a trend in post-apartheid South Africa which includes images of true self and the construction of the fictional self. The paradox of identity is found in the muted tones of Yiadom-Boakye’s two paintings titled Wishes Above Needs and 5am, and Cadiz feature portraits of fictional men. This also applies to Robin Rhodes’s series of sequential drawings titled Piano Chair, where a painted black Rhodes attacks the sketchy drawing of a painting on the wall.

One of the most difficult tasks for a curator, particularly in a show containing the work of many artists, is generating a connection so that it works as a whole. The connection can be as slight as a hint, or as close as bosom buddies, but it must be there to generate the energy needed for the work to play off each other and draw the viewer in. And it is effectively achieved in Siopis’s clever placing of two calligraphic works by the cheeky Avant Car Guard titled Done next to Walter Batiss’s Abstract. A subtler connection is achieved by twinning the particular shade of blue of the linoleum in Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Queen of Necklace Sketch, II, with the passage of blue in Walter Batiss’s Athens.

The flow of an exhibition is also vital. This can be seen in the way Siopis has utilised the architectural qualities of Serge Alain Nitegeka’s two paintings, “Black Subjects I: … and walk in my shoes” and Black Subjects vs Tunnel III to hint at what lies next to this room in the more austere, modern part of the gallery.

Here artists such Nicholas Hlobo, Zander Blom and Paul Edmunds strut their non-narrational structural stuff. Blom’s direct involvement with paint in its fundamental state is coupled with a hard-edged suggestion of architecture. Time Machine, Wim Botha’s sculptural drawing, creates a dynamic interplay with the elemental qualities of dark and light by combining a stretch of neon lights with the dark pincer-shaped thrust of a wooden construction. Hlobo’s Isiseles is a meandering trail of pastel stitches which emphasises the flatness of the white canvas and suddenly gives way to a small densely embroidered hollow. Stripped bare of any accessories, the atmosphere of the gallery, like its name, has a contemplative feeling. It provides the viewer with a chance to sit quietly and engage rather than leaving too quickly before the chemistry between painting and viewer has had a chance to catalyse. And if you get stuck, there is always Siopis’s preface essay in the catalogue to shine a light.

Look out for Siopis’s Obscure White Messenger conjured from discarded 8mm home movies. It is titled after Nelson Mandela’s dismissive response to hearing of Dimitri Tsafendas’s assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd. Against a soundtrack of traditional Mediterranean music its dreamlike images create disturbing disjunctures and connections with the subtitles which are taken from Tsafendas’s psychiatric records.

Use this opportunity to be curious and see what art collectors purchase.