Gold and its discontents: a portrait of Johannesburg with failures


CITY of scrap: Folly, by Toni-Ann Ballenden, an installation comprising rolled up pieces of canvas. Photograph courtesy Gallery 2.

EVEN BEFORE YOU enter the space of Toni-Ann Ballenden’s show City of Gold: Cash for Scrap, in Gallery 2, you’re beset with a sense of playfulness that underpins an earnest idea of a plotted cityscape. There is an installation called Folly in the gallery’s window that speaks of towers and turrets and in the witty, overweening way that Carolyn Heydenrych’s ceramic work speaks of architecture.

But look more closely: these are not buildings or mini-town models of them. They’re rolled up strips of canvas. Tall ones, short ones, fat ones, ones with text printed on them, others like big polluted towering hulks in relation to their neighbours. It’s an important work for this otherwise largely two-dimensional exhibition, as it sets the tone. This artist is unpicking the notion of a cityscape with curiosity and the wisdom of context, and not without sophisticated wit.

The underlying themes of architecture and reuse of objects can be traced throughout this respectable body of 23 works, each of which feels like a precious entity with which the artist has lent her intense focus. Each is there for a reason beyond filling wall space. And each deals with the same broad theme, but they all teeter with abstraction in a way that holds you focused on the filigree of tiny intricate line work and tessellated squares of canvas all intimately pulled together. To say nothing of the circular rhythms and whirligigs of planetary activity that may make you think of Galileo.

Gallery 2 has, over the years, proved itself one of the few galleries in this city with the courage and the acumen to show abstract work with the respect it deserves as a genre in its own capacity, and Ballenden’s work fits comfortably here. The work is collectively highly competent and convincing, in its whorls and sense of balance, in the playfulness of texture across an unbridled and unobvious landscape.

As you look at how she rips apart the standard insignia for aerial views of city plans, you may recall a fire drawing considering the city of Johannesburg, made by Doris Bloom and William Kentridge at the time of the first Johannesburg Biennale in the mid-1990s. Ballenden plies into the notions of a city birthed and premised on the gold that lies beneath its surface, but she doesn’t ignore the sham and drudgery of a dirty, rude city, beleaguered by poverty and corruption.

Further to all of this, she emulates American artist Lee Krasner in an interesting if not Buddhist understanding of the preciousness of one’s own art. Many of the pieces boast the detritus of what she unequivocally deems ‘failed work’ – her own, that is – canvases which she’s sliced into shreds and reconstructed in these startlingly fine works.

Ballenden’s exhibition is a great critical success on so many levels. The works are quiet yet mesmerising, abstract yet very focused on the geography, sociology, history and unpleasant truths of this city. It’s a lesson in growth for an artist: never hold onto the works you’re not happy with; as it is an essay in curatorial strengths. Don’t miss this one.

  • City of Gold: Cash for Scrap by Toni-Ann Ballenden is at Gallery 2, 138 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until March 28. Phone 011 447 0155.


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