Octopus choreography in a miasma of glue


WHEN FIRST YOU cross the threshold of this gallery, this exhibition, you’re assailed by explosions of colour. There’s a hot pink that you can feel as agony in your intestines, an intense purple that makes you brace physically and there’s a sweeping of nuance in the shape of mini tsunamis of glue and chance and undiluted ink. They’re works which suck you in to a vortex of life and fire underwater and in blood. This is the new body of work by seasoned painter Penny Siopis.  Collectively entitled Warm Water Imaginaries, it’s a large show playing with a multitude of ideas in a way that makes your heart beat just a little faster.

Holding on to the title of the exhibition you understand that these works are about climate change, but as you look, and as you think about the grand gestures in cold glue and colour that Siopis has been making for the past several years, so you recognise the octopus, in its sensual, slimy, monstrousness that has become so central to her oeuvre.

And then, once you’ve perused the white gallery space carefully and allowed each of the large format works on canvas to speak to you, there’s a dark blue-painted room comprising small works on paper. Replete with luminous extravagance, they’re works which beat and suppurate at their own rate. It’s like entering an underworld of sorts where you don’t understand any of the implicit rules, and each jewel of a drawing seduces your mind and eye.

The exhibition extends further, into what Siopis has deemed a space of thought and improvisation. There’s a massive installation on the wall here, splicing news headlines with gestures, objects and books in a way that feels less like a gallery and more like a studio. A single-channel digital video entitled She Breathes Water segues elements and images together in a roughshod manner which is jumpy and bumpy, yet profound and moving. It recalls the video piece Siopis showed recently in this gallery, dealing with the history of a song.

You feel in the ether of this exhibition, the presence of Siopis’s late husband, the artist Colin Richards, particularly with the work containing cast hands, bones and eyes and little cemetery-evocative found sculptures appended to painted works. Not to forget a crocheted parrot mask adorning a replica of a Classical sculpture.

In entirety this large body of work is unabashed in its membranous sexuality and in its multiple tentacle-like reach in myriads of directions. The glue spills beyond the confines of the paintings’ formats in some cases, and implodes upon itself with colour that will infuse all your thoughts as you walk away. Not one of these images is simple. Like a siren, it summons you with a beguiling song and a viscous tentacle to look closer, deeper … to realise the immense depth and devastating subtleties it embraces. And then you step back, alarmed, changed and dizzy in the wake of having experienced something so universal and yet so intimate. Almost intrusively so. It’s a show which will strip you to your very core, very rapidly.

  • Warm Water Imaginaries by Penny Siopis is at Stevenson Johannesburg, 62 Juta Avenue, Braamfontein, until May 3. Call 011 403 1055.
  • This gallery is moving to new premises in the Johannesburg suburb of Parktown North in the middle of May 2019. Watch this space for details.

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