Burnt menagerie and the power of the waxen object


SILENT shriek: David Brown’s Angler Fish, in bronze. Photograph courtesy Everard Read Gallery.

THE FACT OF death always belies what you may anticipate when you think of losing a loved one. One year after the untimely passing of David Brown, an extraordinary testament to the love of his family and his energy and focus, by way of an exhibition entitled Zoo is now on show in Johannesburg. And in its humour and interstices, Brown is inimitably present.

You may think of Brown and think of the large public sculptures he made in the 1980s and 1990s. They were three-dimensional poems about the cruelty, crudity and overweening silliness of violence in this country. More often than not, the characters were armed with clubs and scary facial expressions, but also exposed genitals, combining bravado with vulnerability in a way that made you laugh, darkly.

The works on show in this exhibition are not public pieces. They’re not large. They represent a new direction the artist was focused on. And he never had the privilege of seeing them in the form in which they take here: this body of bronze sculptures and linocuts were lovingly cast and printed under the eye of his widow Pippa Skotnes and his brother-in-law John Skotnes after Brown’s tragic death on 18 March 2016.

It’s an exhibition premised on the destruction of the Berlin Zoo during the Second World War, examining how the animals, in agony and confusion, were decimated. But with all the gore and tragedy it implies, this exhibition is like a positive trajectory into an unknown future. Men armed to the teeth are juxtaposed with fishes and beasts with only their teeth and claws to protect them. And a lack of understanding of the horror of war to insulate them. The basic rubrics of Brown’s working philosophy, dark humour and practice are there, but there’s more.

The curatorial decision to include the wax maquettes that Brown created in anticipation of casting them in bronze. And as you stand alongside this trough of fully detailed, half-made creatures and characters, in the middle of the gallery space, something of the stuff and resonance of objects reaches you. That old ritual of holding on to something that the beloved lost one touched to feel a closeness to that absent person, and to pay intimate tribute to one’s broken heart and terrible sense of absence is celebrated here, quietly and with dignity.

It’s a beautiful show. One that will make you weep for the absence of Brown in this world, even if you didn’t know him.

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