Bad men, rotten clouds and ambiguous shades of evil


TRUST me: Robyn Penn’s portrait of one of the most wanted men in the world, scientific spin-doctor, David Koch. Photograph courtesy David Krut Projects.

YOU MIGHT NOT be able to recognise that your boss is a psychopath. Until, of course, her behaviour gives her away. Evil or madness in a human being in real life is not easily recognisable. People don’t run around bullying and destroying other people’s lives with a great big gargoyle on their heads, so that you can steer clear of them.

Representing evil in art is complicated. Should it be ugly? Should it be enticing and thus dangerously beautiful? Either position, if taken to an extreme endangers the value of the representation: anything too exaggerated slips off into the realm of crudity or simplicity that is undermining. In her current exhibition that engages with the cancer of doublespeak and spin-doctoring in the eye of a cripplingly polluted world, Robyn Penn achieves a level of balance which will disconcert you down to your very toes.

Released as a documentary film in 2014, Merchants of Doubt, directed by Robert Kenner, is based on the text by historical scientists Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway of 2010, that exposes how politically conservative scientists in the United States weighed in to debates surrounding environmental issues such as acid rain, the danger of smoking, the hole in the ozone layer, deliberately confusing a layman’s understanding of the environmental status quo for financial and political gain. Without cluttering up her narrative with the specifics of the controversy, Penn presents a body of work that considers polluted clouds and these men with their sinister agendas.

Her portraits of Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow, Charles and David Koch, Fred Singer and Milton Friedman are the most magnetic aspect of this tightly woven and compelling exhibition, and once you’re sucked in by them, you get seduced by the cloudscapes and their subtleties.

But these are no ordinary portraits. Premised on highly conservative and traditional photographs of these men, her works, primarily in black and white paint, take the faces of white scientific clout and corrupt them physically. Here’s a crooked eye. There are a pair of raw red ears. This man’s face is smeared down one side as though a painterly stroke was tearing at the fabric of its symmetry. This bloke’s piercing blue eyes puncture a loose and flabby face lending it a sinister tone that is nightmarish.

There’s something of German Expressionist Max Beckmann’s self portraits in the heavy line work, the wise and developed understanding of the planes and textures of these faces, the use of tones and tints with a bold hand and a bracing directness, but it shows an aspect of Penn’s repertoire that her followers and fans have not seen for a long time.

Penn’s cloud paintings fit more recognisably into her contemporary oeuvre but these cloudscapes, against a dark ground are heavily impregnated with strong colour. They’re heavy with rage rather than rain, and filtered with the kind of pollution you see on Johannesburg’s skyline at twilight. Is it beautiful? Or rotten with filth? The same issues of good and bad are threaded together and presented with directness and ambiguity to make you think.

Further, in this exhibition we see Penn playing with a diversity of approaches to intaglio – some interesting if imperfect forays into mezzotint, and some of her beautifully descriptive line work in delicately coloured sugarlift, aquatint and hardground, featuring the curious abstraction that drawing a cloud is all about, as well as a jewel-like, but suspiciously scary sense of colour. While you gaze into the heart of these green and red and orange lines with their calligraphic energy, you cannot help but wonder if they depict poisonous gases and the imminent collapsing of the air that we breathe, that we thought we understood.

Central to the exhibition is a sculptural work which retranslates the idea of a cloud into a bronze-cast tumour with cauliflower texture and a weightiness that you can feel in your lungs as you look upon it.

Cloud of Unknowing is a smart and sophisticated exhibition that lacks smug slickness or earnest didactic content – the work is beautifully rendered but has the humility and spirit of discursiveness to leave you both aesthetically pleased and morally troubled at the same time.

  • Cloud of Unknowing, by Robyn Penn is at David Krut Projects in Parkwood, Johannesburg, until August 6. 011 447 0627 or

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