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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Michael Smith:In a Sea of Possibilities

Georgina Gratrix, Untitled, 2008,
monotype with Intaglio ink and oil paint
on 250g Zerkall litho paper, 77.6 x 55.5cm
Patti Smith builds her epic 1975 track ‘Land’ to a culmination with a recurrence of the word “possibilities”. Smith’s lyrical style here, one of free association, with one sound and idea building on and expanding the previous, is perhaps a useful metaphor for colour’s function in visual art at this juncture in South Africa’s history. The suggestibility of colour, and particularly coloured paint, lends art a value beyond empirical reportage. The chief intellectual barbarism of apartheid was to shut down possibility, rendering various forms of image making (and thus image thinking) undesirable,ill-advised or even illegal. Yet during this period colour remained transgressive in its suggestion of conceptual and emotional complexity. Similarly, in the post-apartheid cultural context, blighted for the bulk of the post-liberation period by conservative delineations of identity, most often through photography, painting in colour seems to hold special possibilities for expression that sidesteps the predictable and the coagulating.

Colour never left us, despite a temporary dominance of apartheid-era agitprop-style visual culture and the attendant moral binaries. There remained at the heart of South African art production practitioners like the late Robert Hodgins, who used colour as expressive of more nuanced moral and political positions. Hodgins’ work presented positions along spectra between good and evil, moral outrage and bankruptcy.

For much of his mature career Hodgins occupied an unrivalled position in local contemporary art. Remaining vital in a period that saw numerous key artists failing to make the transition from being anti-apartheid rhetoricians to post-liberation artists,Hodgins remained a prodigious maker of images, his critical edge and flair for social satire remaining undimmed until the end of his life.

Key to Hodgins’s prolific output was his methodology, one of speculative daubing and focused play, loosely undertaken until something began to emerge on the canvas. He famously likened his painting practice to that of a surfer, bobbing out in the waves waiting for his ‘set’. Though disciplined in routine, working in his studio each day, Hodgins nonetheless spent much of his studio time toying with colour, waiting for something useful to emerge from this experimentation.

The results were often astounding: the triptych The Triple Gates of Hell (1985-86), owned by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, is a peerless achievement in South African contemporary painting, using colour like nothing before or since. The work deals in a politicised green, a colour more readily associated with soft-focus notions of regeneration and growth than politically edged satire. On Hodgins’s brush,the hue becomes the green of the billiard table in the mansion game’s room, or that of the manicured lawn behind a 12-foot high wall in a leafy suburb. Also, without lapsing into overwrought depictions of the body so voguish in the 1980s, this work (along with the 1986 acrylic A Beast Slouches) established Hodgins as this country’s premier painter of the human form. Like Philip Guston, whom he cited as a strong influence, Hodgins remained open to finding shorthand means of picturing the human condition, without diminishing the gravity of his content.

One senses, though, that the real value of this picture lies in Hodgins’s ability to conjure possibility from coloured stains on fabric: in his triptych Hell is as much a place of decadent promise as it is of torment. Torment itself is rendered ambiguous, operating here without any of the cues so often favoured by drawing, printmaking and poster art of the period – high chiaroscuro, repetitious primary colours and loaded imagery. Although Hodgins was to collaborate with artists like William Kentridge numerous times throughout his life, it is clear from his wondrous triptych that his take on the fears and desires that maintained apartheid was in a different league his collaborator’s. In many of Hodgins’s subsequent works, commentary was informed by a full grasp of the terrible expediencies that prop up systems of exploitation. As with the best tragicomedies, the storyteller’s depth lies in his allowing space for the audience to resonate with the agents of evil as much as it sympathizes with their fodder. In the 1990s Hodgins remained a consistent if somewhat quieter critic of society’s foibles. From the social (Off to the Charity Ball and Woman at a Goodman Gallery opening, both from 1999) to the political (The Orator, 1998), this period saw Hodgins perfecting his deployment of colour, always shot through with an acute sense of its potential to scour rather than placate. The horror of his more strident resistance works seemed mitigated in the 1990s by a humorous exploration of the banality of power gone wrong, akin to images by another great painter of his age, Leon Golub. Even Hodgins’s images of so-called “black sites” – sites in which covert and thus unaccountable military functioning is allowed to occur – which he discussed with me in 2007, dealt in a humour that precluded hair-trigger moral outrage. Throughout this period and until his recent passing in March 2010, Hodgins remained formally curious, inserting visual elements like spray paint, tape masking and collage into his process. He seemed genuinely, consistently interested in the potential of his medium to surprise both himself and his audience.

Georgina Gratrix, People Eater, 2008, oil on Fabriano,
The works of Michael Taylor and Georgina Gratrix have many overlaps with Hodgins’s approach, including an often deadpan rendering of banality that deliberately pulls against their strident colour use. Though neither artist readily cites Hodgins as an influence, one senses that both operate in a space opened up by the spirit of Hodgins’s productive play. Gratrix’s images are most often of women, and her practice often riffs on the chauvinist impulses of Picasso, Kirchner and Matisse. Yet her headspace is humorous, subtly unpacking myths of representation of women in ways that undermine painting’s haughtiness, with aplomb. Images like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Woman V, both shown on her 2008 exhibition, Master Copy, at Whatiftheworld Gallery in Cape Town, deliberately make nonsense of Picasso and De Kooning’s most hallowed and chauvinistic works, reducing, as Katharine Jacobs said in a review on ArtThrob, “groundbreaking avant-garde to… interior décor”. Gratrix samples colours from these originals with which to create Buren-esque vertical line paintings. The vertical arrangement of the lines in these images accords with a subtly-manifested awareness of gender politics that pervades her work. Marlene Dumas has famously recounted an anecdote in which a critic panned one of her paintings, The Particularity of Nakedness (1987) for its overwhelming horizontality;the critic called it “too passive, too homosexual,too horizontal”. Dumas’s contention was that, on a subliminal level, our phallocentric society’s obsession with the potency of the erection motif makes viewers uncomfortable with the absence of verticality in images. In the context of this thinking, Gratrix’s vertical lines come off as a joke at the expense of hyper-masculine modernism, erect but sampled to the point of impotence, certainly devoid of the expressive virility so prized by their authors. Yet for all that she gestures towards gender politics, Gratrix operates in a fresh field, eschewing the seriousness of painters like Penny Siopis. If Siopis’s work grapples with the female psyche within terrains of exploitation (rape, abuse, deprivation), Gratrix’s portrait-based works seem rather to unpack moments, instances and images of female collusion in gender-based exploitation, often with the playfulness a class clown. Her works explore representational politics, cults of celebrity and the imaging of women in art history. Yet, this is not traditional portraiture by any means: a skewed approach to painting faces is one of her chief methodologies, somewhere in the neighbourhood of paintings by Chantal Joffe. In Gratrix’s portraits, multiple eyes and mouths, misaligned features and acid colours all contribute to an interpretation of the face (and the sense of media-constructed identity that attaches to it) that is deliberately ‘remixed’.

'Party Girls (Samantha & Lindsay),' 2007,
Oil on canvas,120 x 90cm
Party Girls (Sam and Lindsay) (2008) features Hollywood starlet Lindsay Lohan and thengirlfriend, DJ Samantha Ronson. An online search for this painting initially yielded the original photograph on which Gratrix’s image is based: a typical ‘scene’ photo, one of predictable tabloid glamour and coquettish rebellion with which Lohan and Ronson appear all-too happy to play along. By contrast, Gratrix’s painting of this paparazzo’s photograph shows scant respect for celebrity party scene gloss and the titillating back-stories of Lohan’s ‘shock’ homosexuality. In Gratrix’s hands the celebrities morph from Hollywood B-listers to post-pop poster girls of contemporary dysfunction, ‘badly-drawn girls’, as it were. Her painting’s strident coloration, in a similar vein to Lisa Yuskavage, seems to hint at the artificiality of the experiences of celebrity, and subtly problematises constructions of imagery of and for the celebrity circuit.

People Eater (2008), by contrast, plays another art history-savvy game with a familiar notion. Assisted by its title, the picture recalls Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children (1819-23). This disturbing manifestation of unchecked patriarchy appears reversed here, the eaten progeny, all muddy pinks and slashes of cobalt blue, returning to grow somewhat inconveniently on the patriarch’s face.

Michael Taylor, Jesus was an excellent dancer,
2009, gouache on board,
45 x 45cm
Arguably even more than Gratrix’s paintings, Michael Taylor’s images seem to be exercises in visual free association. Blobs of abstract colour on one work’s surface (Close-up of last night’s dinner treat, 2009) seem to suggest the twirl of soft icecream on the next (Abominable Smoothy, 2009); barlike brush strokes constructing a form in one image (Crumpled Painting, 2009) get utilised in another as non-representational surface interference (And then the outlines left their shapes, 2009). Colour in Taylor’s images oscillates between good and bad taste, creating its own self-referential world in which the emotional and satirical components of the work are advanced by the pastel, often-saccharine coloration. A work such as Jesus Was an Excellent Dancer merges the religious invocation of the title with the imagery of a swarthy, Latin-looking male figure in the throes of suggestive choreography. Taylor toys gently with notions of representational decorum: the stoic figure of Jesus is seldom imaged moving at all, let alone dancing licentiously.

Though the image is apparently quickly rendered, it reveals Taylor’s masterful command of colour, a vibrant confection of ice blues, murky taupes and camouflage greens. Over the top, as he so often does, Taylor has floated a visual disturbance of the base image, a flurry of brightly-coloured confetti, giving the satire a carnivalesque quality like the closing sequence of a TV dance competition show. The conflation of popular culture and religion is obvious, and the resulting satire of contemporary religion as pandering spectacle is incisive. About his developing relationship with colour, Taylor comments: “Recently I’ve started making ‘brown’ paintings; those colours that your art teacher at school warns you to not mix. I just like the idea that, like one would mask what’s being represented, you can also mask colour, and the communicative value of colours.”

Michael Taylor,
Ginger in the morning.
Ginger in the evening. Ginger at suppertime,
gouache on board,
60 x 60cm
Sometimes colour becomes the subject of Taylor’s images as well as the medium: when this happens it is often in a satirical fashion. His image Ginger in the morning. Ginger in the evening. Ginger at supper time. (2009), a play on the traditional song Sugar in the morning… intentionally references a popular soft prejudice against redheads. Yet the joke doesn’t end there: in a macabre twist, the central ‘Ginger’ has orange ovals, suggestive of a skull’s ocular cavities, floating over his eyes. It is as if Taylor is assuming the role of a snarky teenager defacing images in a school yearbook. There is a direct connection between colour usage and the adoption of shifting subjectivities, with the kind of fluidity that operates best in paint.

In God is dashing. He’s French, you know (2009), Taylor conflates the deity with a type of super-dominant male archetype from pop culture. Reminiscent of 1970s cigarette adverts, with moustached European men dressed as pilots, ship’s captains or the like, the work is satirical in the extreme. Likening the Judeo- Christian God to an anachronistic, play-acting pilot from a commercial is as sharp a critique of modern religion as one is likely to find. And once again, it is the suggestibility of paint, with the title doubtless added after the image’s completion, that makes this a powerfully fresh exercise. Viewed against the cult of veracity that pervaded South African photography for many years (David Goldblatt’s precisely descriptive titles such as After their funeral, a child salutes the Cradock Four, Cradock, Eastern Cape 20 July 1985 prove that this faithfulness informed even the naming of works, as does Guy Tillim’s Wires to private generators, apartment block, Luanda, Angola, 2007), Taylor’s approach seems similar to Hodgins’s, attaching meaning to images once their terms and tendencies emerge from productive play.

In this paper I have tried to draw connections between the artists’ approaches to image making, in a way that highlights a certain shared openness, or at least open-endedness. This was done in an attempt to suggest a future value for colour painting in this country. There are many other young artists one could mention in this context: Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Matthew Hindley, Mustafa Maluka, Tom Cullberg – the dictates of brevity in this format prevent discussion of all of these. Yet, overall it is plain that one of the central points of the theme for this colloquium, “how in fact might we use or be using colour to express the complexity of human existence”, seems to have been asked and answered. It is clear that we do not, nor have we for the last 30 years, excised the expressive possibilities of colour from our collective practice, or relegated “bright colour to the realm of the merely decorative, the primitive, denying its complexity”. Colour, as it has through our bleakest passages of social history, continues to represent seas of possibilities for young artists, apparently undeterred by the concurrent orthodoxy of photography as dull as dishwater.

Michael Smith is an artist, educator and managing editor of

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