In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sean O' Toole: Death of a Critic: the who, when, where and how of Ivor Powell

In his slender but influential 2003 volume, What happened to art criticism?, James Elkins offers that, “Art criticism is not considered as part of the brief of art history: it is not an historical discipline, but something akin to creative writing.” The evidence of contemporary criticism does not entirely bear out this statement. In the context of the wholesale disassembling or dematerialisation of art practice across the span of the twentieth century, it is surprising, at least to me, that much of what is understood as art criticism remains Catholic, hidebound and formally conservative. I think in particular of the review, a standard editorial device that functions as a sort of eye away from.

In a 2010 lecture, curator Tirdad Zolghadr remarked: “The review is by now the most musty of master forms, the oil painting of art writing.” However, unlike painting, which has brokered an understanding with its anachronisms, art criticism has, for the most part, refused to inhabit art’s “expanded field”, to repurpose Rosalind Krauss’s famous phrase. And so the review remains the prevailing mode of engagement, a rhetorical device that defuses the "creative writing" latent in art criticism in favour of something approaching a bland, descriptively inclined interpretive text. This is particularly pronounced in South Africa where art criticism's ontological fuzziness has only been tentatively been engaged by a handful of writers.

This paper will focus on the work of art critic Ivor Powell, an influential if furtive critic whose writings chart an epochal shift in South African art and its critical reception. Literate, argumentative, undisciplined, Powell was closely associated with Possession Arts, an early 1980s neo-Dadaist group of artists, dramatists and writers. In the late 1980s he was appointed as art critic for the newly launched Weekly Mail, a position he held until the mid-1990s. After the failure of Ventilator, a short-lived post-apartheid art magazine launched in September 1994 and edited by Powell, he started concentrating on investigative journalism, which eventually led to his appointment as a senior investigator with the now defunct Scorpions, an arm of the National Prosecuting Authority. His arrest on January 22, 2008, on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and resisting arrest after he sped away from police attempting to arrest Igshaan Davids, leader of the infamous Americans street gang, then wanted for car theft, forms an interesting sidebar to a career that, at least in writing, is marked by its commitment to a critical eroticism, to borrow from Sontag.

Sean O’Toole is a culture journalist, art critic and writer. A PhD candidate at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, he formerly served as editor of the magazine Art South Africa (2004-10), writes regularly on photography for the Sunday Times and contributes a bi-monthly art column to frieze magazine.

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