Curiouser and curiouser

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EVERY which way: Geometric forms, a drawing in charcoal and chalk on brown paper, by Gordon Froud. Photograph courtesy Total Exposure.

AS YOU ENTER the upstairs space, courtesy of the architects of the Standard Bank Gallery, there’s an implicit sense of event. This is obviously always the case. But it’s enhanced several-fold in Gordon Froud’s first major retrospective. How? Curatorial decisions have dramatically place a massive polyhedron in your face. This exhibition is about time – but it’s also all about space and geometry and God.

But ah! you might cry, as you summit the staircase, this polyhedron is stumped. It’s got blunt points. It’s dramatic, sure, but there’s something artisanal about it. And then you step a little closer and look at the tessellation wall works, which surround said polyhedron. They may you feel as though you have stepped into a child’s kaleidoscope on crack. And then you realise they’re made of black plastic coathangers and cable ties, and the blunt edges of the polyhedron are appropriate because the whole object is made of giant traffic cones. It is then that the world begins to turn on its axis for you as you engage with this extraordinary exhibition.

Mooted as a mid-career project, this exhibition sees Froud in his mid 50s, offering sophisticated and carefully articulated summation on all that he’s been working on and interested in through his career. And while the geometry is central to it all, there’s an ethos as to where this geometry is found and how it is extrapolated that keeps you curious to the very end.

But more than that, Froud takes the whole of the upstairs gallery space and uses it with clarity and empathy. It’s a humble exhibition that is about the real skills of looking and drawing on supports such as brown paper, but a proud one too, that examines a great diversity of artmaking approaches. Ultimately, it is satisfyingly balanced in the layout of work, which takes you through four ‘chapters’ of possibility.

You do, however, emerge from this exhibition remembering Froud’s fondness for all things Alice in Wonderland.  Not because there’s a Cheshire Cat secreted in the interstices of the lines and circles here, but rather because the mathematical ethos of Lewis Carroll’s madcap ideas are spun under the surface of these works.

And while as a body of work it touches on everything from Jewish to Christian to Hindu to Buddhist splays of spiritual values, it also doffs a cap to Leonardo’s thinking and sees a spot of geometry in the world as it stands. In doing so, it evokes the thinkings of György Doczi on proportional harmonies in nature and everything else.

That said, a couple of series in this exhibition, including the photographs of the figure in geometry, feel almost too diagrammatic and if you’re not in the know in terms of mystical values, they may leave you cold. Similarly, a series of embossed images toward the chronological closure of the show feel so busy that you cannot look at them. But Froud is an interesting character and this exhibition really does go the extra mile in offering something for everyone. It’s astonishing to acknowledge that all of this is the work of one artist.

And further to everything, this society has a troubling relationship of not being able to celebrate its own. For whatever reason. Often an artist needs to go overseas and earn ticks from the so-called “International community” before he or she gets a nod from local establishments. Froud’s show here and now kind of bucks this trend, but for a mid-career show to be mounted in the latter years of as prolific a practitioner as he, feels uncomfortable. However, as you walk through the four chapters of this exhibition, so do you realise that this is most likely where serious fine art in contemporary society is pointing right now: the invested thought. The carefully drawn line. The gesture that is unashamedly analogue. This is an important show for all the right reasons.

  • Harmonia: Sacred geometry, the pattern of existence by Gordon Froud is at the Standard Bank Gallery, central Johannesburg, until June 15. 0860 123 000.
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Things we take when we go

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EFFERVESCENT words and the power of etching. Andrew Munnik’s He Goes. Photograph courtesy Fried Contemporary Art Gallery.

ONE OF THE central catastrophes of our world is the untold damage done to people who are forcibly dispossessed for whatever reason. People who are shoved from their land, pushed into hostile terrain. Chinese contemporary artist Ai WeiWei reflects on refugees in his enormous current advocacy film Humanflow. Much quieter, and considerably less dramatic, but no less to the point, is Andrew Munnik’s current body of work, on show at Fried Contemporary Art Gallery.

Entitled Strangers in a Strange Land, this modest collection of six intaglio prints and three large scale paintings touches all the issues central to the horror of loss – that is loss of identity through possessions, through association. In being so, they’re not invested with precious earnestness. Rather they’re quite quirky pieces that will make you smile a little as your gut is wrenched by the reality referred to.

But above all, Munnik makes curious use of the presence of words and letters, which take on the role of lines cross-hatching one another. As a result, texture is cast and presented in the body of an image, but look more carefully, and the words and letters pop out at you. It’s almost as though you are looking at a bag of memories that from far looks homogenous, but up close contains nostalgia and anguish, the things left behind, and those that are lost.

The paintings are less successful in their engagement with subtlety.  They’re less easy to fall into, from your heart onwards. Has this to do with the mix of repeated elements in Stay off the Grass, a contemplation of children in a ring-fenced space? Perhaps, but still it is the etchings that grab your eyes back each time, and capture an energy and an intensity that will make you think about possessions, about ownership and about the value of fitting in. You can’t read the text that swarms madly into and out of focus, but you understand it as text, and tease it apart for the value that the written word brings to the skill of holding on in a society where you might be excluded.

  • Strangers in a Strange Land by Andrew Munnik is in the Collectors’ Room at Fried Contemporary Gallery in Brooklyn, Pretoria, until April 7. 012 346 0158.

Your name, my body

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COMING and going. Paul Emmanuel’s Maniere stone lithograph, Platform 5. Photograph courtesy Fried Contemporary Gallery.

THE WORDS THAT describe you — your name — are among the things that unequivocally define you. It’s a proper noun in the world and something that when you are no longer there, will evoke you to strangers. It is upon this premise that much of Paul Emmanuel’s work on his current exhibition reflects. Entitled Impermanence, the pieces on show draw from several bodies of work created over the last decade or so; there are photographs of installations in the fields of France, Mozambique and Grahamstown, and samplings of series of works contemplating mortality.

Remember-Dismember (2015) is a single channel video playing on a loop in the gallery. It encapsulates the untellable, inscrutable nature of a name as it considers the vulnerability of the body as a receptacle for the names of those who are no longer here. Segueing with his thinking in The Lost Men, this video work sees Emmanuel intimately holding on to the anonymous young men who died in trenches, ignominiously rendered fodder by the war machines.

Indeed, on so many levels, Emmanuel becomes as a Wilfred Owen over a hundred years after the First World War. Only his poetry is in gesture rather than descriptive words. And he takes the names of the young men who fell in various wars and embosses them painfully into his flesh, which he photographs, and prints onto sheets of fabric, allowing them to billow in the wind, forcing the gesture from the realms of visual art into performative spontaneity on the arms of nature.

But that’s not all. This exhibition touches on several streams of Emmanuel’s thought processes, including works from his breathtaking stone lithograph series of 2011, dealing with different stages in life. Platform 5 is a particularly poignant case in point, as is Table Number 12. The work is painstakingly fine yet bewilderingly wide in its reach. It’s beguilingly simple in focus and dizzyingly deep at the same time.

In Platform 5, people come and go anonymously through turnstiles in a railway station. In Table Number 12, an elderly man puts on his jacket. On a level, these are ordinary images. On another, they reach through the span of what it means to be alive, vulnerable and mortal in this world, thus irrevocably linking The Lost Men images to these that contemplate how transient it all is.

While it’s always a treat to immerse yourself in Emmanuel’s distinctive line work and intensely refined focus, this exhibition touches on the notion of retrospective even though it is not comprehensive and the space dwarfs the work. These bold and subtle gestures need the infinity of hundred-year-old battle fields, now grown green and fertile, as platform to the banners and flags of soldiers’ names forced into the soft flesh, the yielding skin of the living artist. The exhibition in all its sense of preciousness and intimacy becomes as a cipher to the breadth and depth of Emmanuel’s focus on the tactile anonymity of war and the scars it leaves in society, implacably.

  • Impermanence by Paul Emmanuel is at Fried Contemporary Gallery in Brooklyn, Pretoria, until April 7. 012 346 0158.

Elu’s yizkor

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BLESSED is the light: Cohen lights the candelabra in Put your heart under your feet … and walk. Photograph by Pierre Planchenault.

THE CLEAVAGE BETWEEN art and sacred ritual is very ancient. And it’s not often that contemporary art reaches richly and bravely beyond the limitations of what our society thinks art is, or should be.  It’s, after all, dangerous and unmapped terrain. But Steven Cohen, who has never shied from creating his own boundaries and dancing to his own taboos, does just this in Put your heart under your feet … and walk, a work headlining this year’s Dance Umbrella.

It’s a work so invested with its own sense of integrity that it will shatter you. It is not about perfect pointes or co-ordinated dance steps, but in its unperfectness, it shimmers with real values that reach the core of you, because you are alive. Cohen’s focus in this work, which is a developed version of the recent eponymous exhibition he hosted at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein, is loss. The loss that comes of deep love.

It’s all implicit in the props and footage shown in this intensive work, which lifts you into a realm of being governed by things like a frock made of wind-up record players; a boulevard of broken dreams, as the Marianne Faithfull song declares; shoes pinned onto mini upright coffins, and a gesture of endocannibalism, understood in several cultures to be the ultimate level of empathetic mourning. It’s a work which brings the Jewish ritual of lighting candles into the construct of an elaborate candelabrum, as it touches on the horror of being buried. And it’s a work in which he shows footage of undance he performed in a Johannesburg abattoir some time after the death of his partner of 20 years, Elu.

Featuring Cohen’s characteristic head make up, and a stage full of shoes – doctored dance shoes that represent a taxonomy of his and Elu’s dance and undance careers that skirted rules and birthed unimagined aesthetics – the work evokes on the structure of Cohen’s Golgotha. Staged in Paris in 2009, Golgotha dealt with the loss Cohen suffered in the passing away of his brother.

In Put your heart under your feet … and walk, the ultimate energy you feel is one of profound aloneness. Cohen’s face is displayed enormously on the theatre-wide projection in the work. It’s there and then it’s out of focus, lost. And then, Cohen himself appears on stage, dwarfed terrifyingly by the projection, and horribly alone, struggling to retain his focus and dignity in the face of insurmountably heavy and difficult physical challenges.

It’s about the crippling rawness of knowing that your loved one is gone. It’s like a bloody stump that cannot heal. This is not a dance work. It’s a work of impeccable love. And in sharing this intimacy with an art audience, Cohen courageously brings something akin to ancient religious values into the theatre. You might not need to see the rest of Dance Umbrella — indeed, you might not need to see anything onstage again, if you have had the privilege of being in the presence of this work.

  • Put your heart under your feet … and walk is choreographed and performed by Steven Cohen. It features creative input by Cohen (costumes), Joseph Go Mahan, Leonard Cohen and Marianne Faithful (music) and Yvan Labasse (lighting and technical). It performs, as part of the 30th iteration of Dance Umbrella, on Friday March 9 at the Wits Theatre, Braamfontein at 9pm. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Our filthy world in clean lines

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SOLID smoke stacks on the sea: Ruin Lust VIII, a drypoint print by Matthew Hindley. Photograph courtesy David Krut Projects.

OH, WHAT A joy it is to see beautifully rendered and magnificently printed drypoints with burr so fierce that it disrupts all sense of complacency! These intaglio prints by Matthew Hindley make you remember what a drypoint is meant to be. The edges are crisp and the tone is furry. The energy of the works in Survey of Risk, an exhibition at David Krut Projects in Rosebank, holds the focus of this show with conviction.

You will discover other things in this exhibition as well, but Hindley’s series of drypoints, collectively called Ruin Lust, headlines everything. Even his painting. And indeed, you may read the name “Matthew Hindley” and think, ‘Oh, he’s a Cape Town-based painter.’ You would not be wrong. But here is an opportunity to see another quiver to Hindley’s bow: a very fine one, indeed.

But we digress: if you’re not a printmaker, drypoint is a particular intaglio technique which does not use acid. The image is scratched onto the metal plate with a sharp and hard tool, called a burin. As the blade of the burin penetrates the metal plate, a lip is left, which, when printed, yields what is known as burr. The burr becomes a comment on the ink that is caught between the groove of the scratch on the plate, and the printmaker’s hand. It’s difficult to attain a uniform print of burr because of the viscosity of the ink, and the fact that a drypoint plate, if subject to too much printing, can become flattened, and the subtleties – and that rich burr – lost.

Dealing with environmental issues and complexity of nuance in a world fraught with pollution, in a similar vein to Robyn Penn’s exhibition in this space in 2016, the work is almost contradictorily beautiful. There are billowing smoke stacks and oily fires represented here, but the horror of the scene is shifted in its interpretation and Hindley’s mark-making and line work steals the moral high ground of the pieces.

There are drypoints printed in coloured ink, hand-coloured drypoints and water-colour monotypes on show in this exhibition. While the monotypes are less focused, they too celebrate the quirks of their medium, and Hindley plays with the lucid water-based colour with abandon, in a way that is only implied in his oil paintings.

There is one oil painting on show. The Dew Makes a Star represents a kind of monster daisy. A mutant hybrid that may be a comment on hormonal experimentation. Either way, it’s a mix of what looks like a long purple sex organ with petals all around it. And Hindley’s environmental message holds sway, but still, still, there are the drypoints, which again snatch and grab at your eye, even while you look at the other works.

You might plunge yourself heart and soul into these drypoints and think of Van Gogh’s cypresses in pen and ink drawings. The crispness and distinctness of each little mark which contributes to the energy in the entire work is mesmerising and wise, beautiful and direct and gives a sense of rightness to the complex and often unforgiving technique of drypoint.

A bluebird trilled in gold, here

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SIMPLICITY in multiplicity. Agapanthus II, a painting in oil by Bronwen Findlay. Photograph courtesy Everard Read Gallery.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a veteran South African painter encounters the work of Japanese Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) through her paintbrush? In short, a little madness. Don’t expect slavish copies of the wave that has slipped into commercial use ad nauseum, when you visit the latest exhibition of paintings by Bronwen Findlay at the Everard Read Gallery. Instead, you can look forward to something raw and fresh, witty and beautiful that offers you a soupçon of Hokusai in a Findlay rubric. And it will lighten your day.

The art world since time immemorial, is replete with borrowings and pastiches, the articulation of other people’s ideas and expressions. It’s how we roll. But it was Belgian-born surrealist painting René Magritte who in the late 1920s put a kind of a cap on the whole morass of copying and representing, with his work The Treachery of Images. This very bold and clear painting of a pipe is more popularly known as Ceci N’est Une Pipe, which is the legend painted into the work. Not a pipe? Of course not: it’s a painting of a pipe.

In Findlay’s body of new work, which does indeed, include a reference to Hokusai’s Great Wave, we get something similar. But it doesn’t embrace as one-liner a status as the Magritte. The key word is “Painting” in the exhibition’s title. These are not Hokusais. They’re not pictures of Hokusais. They’re not pretending to be them, nor are they copying his style. But they take flight from the representational and compositional ideas presented by Hokusai and something extraordinary happens.

Look at the large work called Kingfishers and Roman Doves. A blue bird messily swoops toward the painting’s edge, feathers akimbo. As you look at him, you can feel the energy in his gesture, the way in which his wings magick with a mix of musculature and paint to lift the bulk of his body in flight. In Agapanthus II, the variegated head of an agapanthus is tousled against a gold leaf ground. You recognise the architecture of the plant, can feel the wind in its petals, and in Findlay’s signature loosely descriptive line work.

Findlay is a master of composition and this body of work serves to corroborate that status. Playing with a mix of filigreed lines, subtleties upon subtleties, texture and perceptual rendition, she creates abstracted landscapes which skirt decorative energy with celebrations of Japanese woodcut aesthetic. She takes risks and breaks rules and in doing so she surprises you with lilies and an agapanthus head, with a bird skittering almost too close to the painting’s edge for comfort, but actually, he’s in the best possible place.

Her work is not sharp edged. Her grounds are not flawlessly laid. But this is not essential. In this body of big paintings and small, one of the nested spaces in the carefully curated overall venue that is Everard Read Gallery, there are gems that will make you believe in the worthiness of tomorrow.

To see infinity in a cow

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GOD in a cow: Daniel Naude’s Ankole 3: Outside Mbarara, Kiruhura district, Western Region, Uganda (2012).

SHE STANDS WITH supreme dignity, her horns reaching up in a glorious arc. A man milks her, but she looks, unmoving, at infinity. At you – on the other side of the photograph. This is not a photograph of an animal, it’s a paean to God, a portrait of sheer nobility. This is what you get when you enter the space in the Everard Read Gallery which contains ten photographs by Daniel Naudé, collectively entitled A Decade of Seeing.

Not very much information on Naudé himself is present in the gallery’s press release, but this is a detail you forget as soon as you are transfixed by the exquisite Ankole cattle — drawn from his photographic series Cattle of the Ages — which dominate the exhibition with their ponderous, serious presence. And you realise you know all you need to about Naudé’s presence and gentleness, respect and forbearance from just looking at these works. You might not believe in the veracity of these animals’ horns, embracing the world as they do with a serious generosity that takes your breath away. But believe, you must.

Look carefully, however: the beasts in question – including the two works which feature large dogs – are blemished. Originating from Uganda and the Northern Cape, the Eastern Cape and Australia, they bear scars on their hides. They’ve been beaten and marked. They’re like clichés of phoenixes standing noble after being broken, only they’re very far from being clichés. They’re like monuments to the potency and secret majesty of animal-hood, and portraits of gods. They’re not unblemished, but they are perfect.

You enter the space and become transfixed. Immediately. The work is tightly – almost cruelly – pared down. Just ten works, including a shrine-line image of discarded blue plastic in the Lamington National Park of Australia, a Northern Cape rainbow plummeting through a landscape of shrub, and a couple of Eastern Cape aloes, which you can taste with your eyes, leave you hungry for more. They also leave you with a very convinced and solid understanding of the harsh and unequivocal landscape, the uncanny, characteristically African light, and the strength and potency of Naudé’s eye.

  • A Decade of Seeing by Daniel Naudé is at Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until March 31. 011 788 4805.