During the 1980s, Clive van den Berg made a series of unutterably fine lithographs focusing on Pearla Seidle Gibson who used to wave the troops goodbye, as they went to war. It’s called Farewells; the works are small – almost inconspicuous, but for the understated poignancy that powers them. During the same period, van den Berg made energetic public installations with shards of coloured tiles. A Pile of Stones is a monumental body of work which draws together his rich embrace of colour with deep reflection that is about love, loss and holding tight.
On one level, it’s an immensely angry show confronting murderous homophobia in a world broken by religious fanaticism, but it takes the specifics of Syria and Iraq and pushes the details into a universal ennui. You come out of this exhibition wanting to embrace the people in your life because of how one can fall, or be pushed, lose or be lost.
The three-dimensional works evoke Anton van Wouw’s reliefs in their mood and detail. The difference is van den Berg elects to work with stubborn mediums, choosing wood over clay, steel over bronze casting. And the effect, particularly of the supremely potent installation in the middle of the gallery, is devastating. It offers a bleak, yet breathtakingly beautiful reflection of the messy tenderness of the human condition.
His Man Turns Away is a quiet piece, but one charged with emotional dynamite. It is a simple sculpture in wood and oil of a man, on a triangular support attached to the wall. His posture is so loaded with simple and irrevocable desolation, that it will continue troubling you. Why has he turned away? What does he leave?
But this is not only a sculpture show, and Van den Berg’s drawings and paintings on canvas and paper lend even more fierceness, but a great sense of perspective to the body of work. As it attracts you in with mad psychedelic shapes, so does it taunt your attraction with fierce gesture and brutal images. Van den Berg uses undiluted colour without tentativeness reflecting the pummel of angry fists smashed against rotten ideas on large canvases.
Harsh striations of electric blues and oranges maul and caress his images with anger and sadness at the horror to which the world continues to degenerate. And yet, yet amidst all that badness and madness, there is levity. There are men escaping torment as they camouflage themselves beneath spots of colour and shadows of lines.
Though focused so bleakly on the machinations of the Islamic State, this is not an exhibition that stands on a soapbox. Rather, A Pile of Stones attests to the fierceness of love and how it can withstand even death itself, but you have to look hard between the murderous anger, broken bodies and muscular drapery to reach this.
When you visit this exhibition, do not forget to peruse van den Berg’s ink on paper works in the gallery’s Viewing Room. It’s a body of 31 drawings conceived with a frank line and an exploratory boldness which lend cogent reflection on an artist at once political and emotional, universal and specific; a man not afraid to go head to head with a block of wood or a lump of steel, and one who can wield a stylus bearing ink with acuity and conviction. It’s a beautiful exhibition.
- A Pile of Stones by Clive van den Berg is at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until February 15. 011 788 1113.