What makes abstraction sing: Behrmann and Stadler


Gail Behrmann’s Square in Grey (2015)

Abstract painting may be seen to have had its day, in the avant-garde 1940s and 1950s in the West, when painters of the ilk of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, to name but a few, were in their heyday, cocking snooks at the notion of literal narrative or perceptual painting, delving into a deeper more mystical aspect of what makes something beautiful, and challenging perceptions, as they were. If we look at the South African context, and the 1980s, and the work and initiative of the late Bill Ainslie, we might be able to see something similar, oh that we were able to turn the clock back and change things.

The founder and director of the Johannesburg Art Foundation, Ainslie was significantly instrumental in honing an abstract aesthetic which existed and might have grown beyond the confines of the academy, but then he was killed in a car accident in August 1989 and many of his unexpressed dreams went with him.

Looking at the work of the two veteran painters, Jenny Stadler and Gail Behrmann, whose work is currently on show at Gallery 2, one needs historical context, but also an open heart. It’s very easy to dismiss work of this nature as incomprehensible – or worse, incompetent – if you don’t allow yourself a reflection on what makes abstraction sing, given the fact, also that abstraction is not as trendy as it may have been twenty years ago, or more.

Because in the examples of both painters’ work in this show, there are elements that will make your heart soar and incidents in the works themselves that have nothing to do with how you see things in the world, but will touch you in an inestimable way and leave you changed, given the way in which texture and history, colour and light bang and clash and run in conversation and argue amicably and intersect in harmony with one another.

Characteristically, Stadler works with undiluted colour – the neon greens and electric pinks of the plastic palette, as well as bits and bobs of commercial logos, bubble-gum wraps and match boxes. An unrelenting, irresistible concatenation of visual noise is evoked in each of the seven works she shows, and some are named in musical veins – such as Verdi and Rite of Spring – which speaks of the old traditions and the more modern ones.

On the other side of the spectrum is Behrmann, who these days is working largely with white. Her paintings are titled with poetic phrases resonating with reflections on the moon, drawing from poetry composed in the Chinese Tang dynasty which you might consider arbitrary until you have had the privilege of standing under the shoulder of one and looking, really looking into its midst.

Through the Pine Trees Comes the Moon does exactly this. A large work, in the scheme of things, it envelopes olive green references, and there is a frenetic energy in which the way white splays on white, and edges are cast and resolve. There’s a sense of potency that you cannot safely pin anywhere; buy one of these works and it will fill your wall, spinning and spilling beyond the confines of the canvas, even more so than something you could recognise as representational.

The conversations set up between the work of Stadler and Behrmann are multi-tongued and leave your head spinning. Curated so that the paintings of each are comfortable together, but promoting dialogue in the very distinct colour of both, the exhibition is poetic as it is challenging.

  • Two painters, work by Gail Behrmann and Jenny Stadler is on show at Gallery 2, 140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, until December 19. Call 011 447-0155/98 or visit

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