Pop Goes the Revolution

Anna Stielau | Art South Africa. Volume 12, Issue 02, December 2013.

In all honesty, I’ve had my reservations about the series of curated shows christening the New Church, South Africa’s first non-profit private art museum and the ‘passion project’ of local financier Piet Viljoen. Each exhibition is set to profile a different face of Viljoen’s extensive Art collection – now numbering some 480 pieces – as seen through the eyes of an assortment of curators. We’re now on show number two and there’ll undoubtedly be several more to come. My concern rests on the fact that a private collection, no matter how comprehensive, is inevitably shaped by the personal taste of the collector and the ’buyability’ of the works in question. While neither factor is problematic in itself (God knows the Art world needs more collectors willing to bring mouth and money into metaphorical alignment), they do tend to delimit content. I find myself wondering if every new exhibition would be the curatorial equivalent of a timeshare. Sure, you can rearrange the furniture and change the drapes, but there ain’t a lot of room for imagination and it isn’t really yours to reimagine in the first place.

Keeping that in mind, Kirsty Cockerill’s Pop goes the Revolution is a tribute to both the power of curatorial vision and the diversity of Viljoen’s collection. Cheese to the chalk of Penny Siopis’s preceding Subject as Matter, the show represents a lively and engaging exploration of the oft-traversed terrain of contemporary Pop Art. Rather than attempt to homogenise a disparate body of work by imposing a rigid curatorial agenda, Cockerill has selected an eclectic mix of works from both celebrated and lesser-known SA artists, only loosely united by their articulations of a Pop visual vocabulary. Indeed the majority would probably not consider themselves ‘Pop practitioners’, or even Pop adjacent. What they share is a tone, a smart assed and self-aware point of view, a critical eye.

Pop goes the Revolution stakes its initial claim with Cameron Platter’s massive ‘Please don’t kill us’ mural wall in the front garden of the converted Victorian home that houses the gallery. Cheerfully shattering the purity of the Victorian facade, Platter takes his cue from the road works signs of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Once reading ‘Men at Work’, these signs now make the same despairing plea to the general public. While such words are barely a plaintiff whisper amidst the bustle of a freeway, Platter’s work is a visual shout of saturated yellow brickwork that looms over New Church Street. Its flipside reads ‘Please please kill us’, a minor linguistic adjustment that speaks to the duality of South African lived experience. Platter is heavily represented within the walls of the gallery, as are all the other usual suspects: Brett Murray – the original impetus behind Piet Viljoen’s desire to collect art – is everywhere, and Conrad Botes and Anton Kannemeyer are equally omnipresent. Thus far, Cockerill could be working directly from the neo-Pop handbook, but her curatorial strategy becomes more interesting when you take into account the less obvious additions.

Chad Rossouw’s ‘The Cleansing’, located above the old fireplace in what must once have been the lounge, is a quirky inclusion. Consisting of six photographs, newspaper clippings and a book cover, the work unfolds a fictional history that relies on our faith in the veracity of photographs and archival objects. Similarly, George Hallett’s documentary photograph ‘Mandela, First Encounter’ is informed with the gravity of history, but granted the fresh immediacy of pop.

Although I remain charmed by the whole grubby landscape of schlock, kitsch, cartoon and pastiche that characterises much of Pop goes the Revolution, it is these subtle moments of introspection that pack the most punch. They stand as a reminder that although Pop’s original project may be exhausted – the porous borders between ‘High Art’ and ‘Mass Culture’ are pretty thoroughly permeable at this stage, if the last thirty years of Art production haven’t rendered them obsolete – there are still things left unsaid.

As Cockerill writes in her curatorial statement: “The works selected do more than reflect our social landscape – they question it.” Given her penchant for honest interrogations of South African social and political realities, I feel I have to ask here why Cockerill chose to include only four female artists in this twenty-seven-strong show. It seems a curious omission from a female curator. Can it really be that so few women are adhering to a Pop(ish) aesthetic, or is it simply that Viljoen’s collection has failed to represent them? In that respect, and in the sterile white-cube of the New Church gallery space rocking enough classic modernism to give Greenberg a hard on, this is also a fairly conservative show. It represents a new arrangement of an old refrain, albeit one with some clever discords.

Pop goes the Revolution may not be revolutionary, but it does cover a lot of ground with enormous dexterity and more than a little flair. The contents range from the tongue-in-cheek and irreverent to the outright confrontational. Having set the bar high, there’s much to look forward to in the next chapter in the New Church curatorial series.

Anna Stielau is an artist and writer based in Cape Town.