Review

Don’t show me your achy breaky heart

Engage

MIX and match: A work in mixed media by Dylan Graham and Alet Pretorius at ‘Engage’. Photograph courtesy Pretoria Arts Association.

Themes and personal stories for visual art should be grouped in that cliché that warns about making films featuring cute little children and adorable young animals. It treads on very delicate ground and should, at all costs, be avoided or only approached with great self-critical caution, particularly if you want to keep your critical integrity intact. But what happens if you’re pushed to tread on these delicate entities by an outside force? This is what happens in Engage a curated themed group show featuring the work of couples at the Pretoria Arts Association.

Several years ago, the idea of a themed exhibition was all the rage. It was perceived as a trigger to artists who were lacking in inspiration to kick start the art-making muscle. Consider Ricky Burnett’s extraordinary exhibition about horses, curated for the Everard Read Gallery in 2011. Beautiful pieces were born out of this wild idea. Limits, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, after all, are a necessary intervention in order to refine our ideas.

But there’s a corollary to the project: sometimes when you force an artist into making work around a particular theme, you disrespect the maverick and brave energy that is necessary to make a work come to life, you pin the artist’s proverbial wings and you turn it into a stilted kind of exercise that yields work that is, at best, mediocre.

Similarly, there’s the issue of keeping the personal stuff out of the public domain. Many public figures opt to do this. Why? Because how much you love your mum, your wife, your little girl, has little to do with the credibility you put out there as a professional. And also because it is intensely powerful stuff: we all have a connection to family, to roots, to people we have loved who have died, to people we sleep with. Egotistically pushing (or being forced to push) one’s love for one’s dog, for instance, into one’s professional domain treads on thin ice – it puts a great artist in danger of being drowned in a tsunami of ordinary emotions. And further to that, holding up a scalpel and then a speculum to what makes a relationship tick is a little like dissecting a beautiful monster to discover how it lives. Dangerous.

But don’t get me wrong. Sometimes understanding the commonplace emotions of a public figure makes them human in your eyes. But sometimes not.

Engage brings together not only a theme but also deeply personal connection between artists. It puts both these elements onto the proverbial stage.

And from works that feel prickly and uncomfortably sexual, to works that seemingly have nothing to do with one another, to works that put the loved one in the viewfinder of the other loved one, to an astonishingly crude foray into carnality between artists, it’s ultimately a collection of work which leaves you cringing.

Particularly in the latter case. There is a couple of works by Stephen Hobbs and his partner Bronwyn Millar. It involves several small paintings and a video of the couple being intimate with one another. It’s like thrusting Victorian pornography at an unsuspecting stranger for no apparent reason. And it’s a strange situation: when a performance artist, a dancer, gets on stage naked or thrusts values at you in the audience that are sexual and aggressive, it is in the litany of that artist’s approach. But forcing your audience into this type of clumsy voyeurism feels tacky and sad. Yes, it makes you look, but it’s work that you cannot unsee.

The exhibition also includes work by other well-known and critically respected artists such as Reney Warrington and Hannelie Coetzee, Diane Victor and Gordon Froud, to name a few, but in the context in which they’re shown, they force you to look at one work through the lens of the other. It takes work with potential and threads it through a level of self-indulgence that bruises.

  • Engage is in the Main Gallery at the South African Association of the Arts in Bailey’s Muckleneuk, Pretoria, until May 15. 012 346 3100.
  • Artists invited to participate in this project were Allen Laing and Heidi Fourie; Gordon Froud and Diane Victor; Carol Kühn and Avitha Sooful; Nicholas Prinsloo and Danelle Janse van Rensburg; Lawrence Lemaoana and Mary Sibande; Stephen Hobbs and Bronwyn Millar; Johann Nortjé and Leanne Olivier; Lothar Böttcher and Nicki Böttcher; Hannelie Coetzee and Reney Warrington; Francois Visser and Lizanne Visser; Andre Otto and Lizel Otto; Dylan Graham and Alet Pretorius; Retha Buitendach and Kathy Eales; Louwrens Ferreira and Lala Crafford ; Janus Fouché and Mienke Fouché ; Izanne Wiid and Sunet Ferreira.
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