Surface detail to make you melt

Only connect: The world in a web of delicate line.

Only connect: The world in a web of delicate line.

Before binaries like politics or gender, what really determines our sense of place in this world? Our grip on the veracity of maps? Our understanding of the sinisterness of germs?  Our ability to access colour? Richard Penn’s current  exhibition, Surface Detail, may, by and large, be seen  to be abstract, but it seduces with the power of the excruciatingly fine line, as it entertains with a wall text that throws the concept of taking oneself too seriously to the wind.

Scottish writer Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown writes with a grittiness that you can taste. You can smell the characters she describes and empathise with their awkwardness. A contemporary twitter-based fiction writer and poet, Glasfurd-Brown is featured in Penn’s exhibition – or rather, an excerpt from a text she wrote engaging with the magic of colours hooks you by the eye as you enter the gally space. Not kowtowing to the tradition of a solemn and dense wall text, describing the process of the work exhibited, these enlarged bodies of text pull you in, as great fictional writing must, and they cast an understanding of the emotive thrust of colour that sets the tone for this beautiful little exhibition.

It’s not that little, admittedly – Surface Detail comprises over 30 pieces, nine of which are paintings, which offer a new understanding of possibility for Penn, but still, the pieces that hold Penn’s reputation with the firm grasp of conviction, are the pen and ink drawings. So fine, you’re scared to breathe too close to them, in case the line work is altered and shivers and shatters under your gaze, but so robust that they will make you think of the value of the world in which you exist.

A play on weather maps, as they shift into the realm of imaginary geographies, challenge the preciousness of borders and sweep you away in delicate hyperbole, these drawings marry landscape art with abstraction in a way that would have made the Surrealists ache. They’re works that speak of the tight, intrusive and introspective detail  for which Colin Richards was known and held in awe and yet they skirt from being derivative and maintain a sense of signature which is deeply satisfying.

Penn’s paintings offer a completely different insight: they’re brash but fine, slick but awkward in their sense of self. They seduce you in the same kind of way as the drawings do, but with their strong blacks and electric whites, they embrace an understanding of value that at turn shimmers and blinds, like LED light.

  • Richard Penn’s exhibition Surface Detail is on show at the Origins Centre, Wits University campus, Braamfontein, until November 26. Visit

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