Horizons of the present
Pictures, to use a somewhat dated expression, have contexts. Take abstract painting, an ostensibly end-game visual style that is perpetually refreshing itself and a key subject of EBONY’s first exhibition devoted solely to abstraction. It seems almost unimaginable that there was once risk attached to exhibiting abstract paintings in Cape Town. This risk was reputational rather than physical. In 1956, a few months before Jackson Pollock’s death in a car accident and the first publication of Richard Hamilton’s era-anticipating collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, 76-year-old Edward Roworth, a former director of the South African National Gallery, wrote a harangue against the standard-lowering “cult of abstract art” in the Cape Argus. Much has changed since this dour impressionist’s dominion: let’s simply call it an easing of attitudes.
Abstraction in painting is currently experiencing a robust fourth wave in South Africa. This is not an art historical fact, simply my own subjective reckoning of the various phases of abstract painting in this country. Rather than wade into the muck of this history, which is argumentative and fascinating, involving cultural mandarins on the left and right, curator Marc Stanes has opted for a broad survey of the present. It is a profitable strategy. Instead of going for vertical depth, he offers the viewer country-hopping latitude in a show that explores some recent trends in contemporary abstract painting and sculpture.
Not that the past is so easily ignored. Abstracted includes an untitled 2010 painting by Zander Blom, which is hardly a distant past, I’ll admit, but an important reference point nonetheless. The work, which is shown along with a 2007 photograph depicting a pressed ceiling in Blom’s former Brixton home in Johannesburg – he now lives in Cape Town – is representative of an earlier strain of post-apartheid abstract painting in which painters weren’t ready to let go of the figure, or figuration. The history of human achievement here was too close and still heartfelt. Perhaps. But for Blom’s painting and Rory Emmett’s close-up canvas study of a faceted blue sapphire, all the works gathered on Abstracted are non-figurative.
Which is not to say human preoccupations don’t endure. Architecture is a decisive influence on Hugh Byrne and Lars Fischedick, although each expresses its stimulus differently: in reduced geometric forms that bristle with their own disciplined energy. The markings on Victor Ehikhamenor’s provocative un-stretched canvases, which successfully merge painting with sculpture, are inspired by his memory of village traditions in Udomi-Uwessan, Nigeria. By contrast, Senegalese painter Soly Cissé’s work offers a disquisition on urbanity, which might also seem to be the subject of Keith Calder’s silver totem, although familiarity with this Cape Town sculptor’s work might also suggest that he is un-thinking a familiar subject, one as old as art itself: the animal. Stefan Krynauw riffs on existing images (photographs, textbooks illustrations) to create new ones; in the selection here, though, all echoes and traces of a source image are erased. Of course, it is never this decisive. And similarly, abstraction is very often merely a trajectory, rather than a final destination, for many of the artists. Stanes is probably right in hedging his bets with his exhibition’s pensive title: the form and expression might be abstract, but the underlying influence is enduringly human.
Sean O’Toole, May 2016