Universal soldiers, Egyptian mummies


CLICHES of universality and patterns that unsettle. Confidant, a work in acrylic on board, by Peter Mammes. Photograph courtesy Daville Baillie Gallery.

ANIMAL FARM. TWO words which conjure up a quirky engagement with political horror, as they refer to one of the more important tracts of contemporary literature. Peter Mammes, in his current exhibition, It’s Already Too Late Once the Soldiers Have Arrived, touches on the kind of wisdom and predictions in George Orwell’s 1945 parable. And it seduces you, visually, into a hard-edged, complicated universe where the value of lines is equidistant and the closer you look, the more the images and references chill your blood.

When first you enter the multi-levelled gallery space in the newish arts collective space in Lorentzville, you’re struck by the work ethic that pervades Mammes’s oeuvre. These drawings, paintings and sculptures are extremely finely crafted with tight lines and carefully intersecting patterns. There’s a rhythm to the compositions which might make you think of early work by Ryan Arenson, or the murals of Diego Rivera.

These sophisticated pieces in acrylic on board, ink on architect’s paper and cast epoxy resin are completely seductive in the melding of three dimensional content with two dimensional background that they offer. There’s a heady engagement with what makes certain patterns speak of Eastern culture and others speak of Western, church oriented values; Mammes is not afraid to grapple with the mix and muddy it ideologically, resulting in something that you need to gaze at carefully to unpick why they unsettle you.

And unsettle you, they do. Politically. Culturally. Ideologically. That is the kernel of what Mammes is doing here, and why you may think of Rivera and his overtly political murals. The secrets in these works are hidden in plain sight. There is no discrimination between tones and the line work is almost mechanical in how the images evolve. But the closer you look, the more you may think of the early silkscreens of Steven Cohen or the photomontages of European Dadaists of the ilk of John Heartfield or Hannah Höch, which brought together a morass of beauty and horror in patterns to mess with your head and values.

The concatenation of energy and references that Mammes brings you, sucks you into a miasma of universal identity-less soldiers and zoological specimens, the clichéd image of a grown man listening to the cries of a small child and other repeated motifs.

The violence of these motifs is implicit in their associations, not the manner in which they’ve been handled, and the work, with one exception, takes on the ominous mantle of imminent war with a universal hand that never becomes generalised.

The exception is the piece which bears the face of Stalin. This easily recognisable icon of violent Russian history immediately collapses the more threatening horror of this work’s premises into a context which might make you feel able to contain it. The more universal pieces reach out into the ether to fiddle with wars not yet detonated.

And that Stalin piece is the one that forces the work away from the flavour of George Orwell. The seductive and parabolic magic of Animal Farm is its unstated association with real characters.

Having said that, this is an extraordinary exhibition which should not go unvisited. The works are tough, yet fresh. Important for our times, yet not preachy. Easy to look at, yet difficult to internalise.

  • It’s already too late once the soldiers have arrived by Peter Mammes is at the Daville Baillie Gallery, Victoria Yards in Lorentzville, until October 24. Call 061-466-0541.

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