Our filthy world in clean lines

Matthew Hindley Ruin lust VIII 2016 Drypoint_ HR
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.

Bad men, rotten clouds and ambiguous shades of evil

TRUST me: Robyn Penn’s portrait of one of the most wanted men in the world, scientific spin-doctor, David Koch. Photograph courtesy David Krut Projects.

YOU MIGHT NOT be able to recognise that your boss is a psychopath. Until, of course, her behaviour gives her away. Evil or madness in a human being in real life is not easily recognisable. People don’t run around bullying and destroying other people’s lives with a great big gargoyle on their heads, so that you can steer clear of them.

Representing evil in art is complicated. Should it be ugly? Should it be enticing and thus dangerously beautiful? Either position, if taken to an extreme endangers the value of the representation: anything too exaggerated slips off into the realm of crudity or simplicity that is undermining. In her current exhibition that engages with the cancer of doublespeak and spin-doctoring in the eye of a cripplingly polluted world, Robyn Penn achieves a level of balance which will disconcert you down to your very toes.

Released as a documentary film in 2014, Merchants of Doubt, directed by Robert Kenner, is based on the text by historical scientists Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway of 2010, that exposes how politically conservative scientists in the United States weighed in to debates surrounding environmental issues such as acid rain, the danger of smoking, the hole in the ozone layer, deliberately confusing a layman’s understanding of the environmental status quo for financial and political gain. Without cluttering up her narrative with the specifics of the controversy, Penn presents a body of work that considers polluted clouds and these men with their sinister agendas.

Her portraits of Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow, Charles and David Koch, Fred Singer and Milton Friedman are the most magnetic aspect of this tightly woven and compelling exhibition, and once you’re sucked in by them, you get seduced by the cloudscapes and their subtleties.

But these are no ordinary portraits. Premised on highly conservative and traditional photographs of these men, her works, primarily in black and white paint, take the faces of white scientific clout and corrupt them physically. Here’s a crooked eye. There are a pair of raw red ears. This man’s face is smeared down one side as though a painterly stroke was tearing at the fabric of its symmetry. This bloke’s piercing blue eyes puncture a loose and flabby face lending it a sinister tone that is nightmarish.

There’s something of German Expressionist Max Beckmann’s self portraits in the heavy line work, the wise and developed understanding of the planes and textures of these faces, the use of tones and tints with a bold hand and a bracing directness, but it shows an aspect of Penn’s repertoire that her followers and fans have not seen for a long time.

Penn’s cloud paintings fit more recognisably into her contemporary oeuvre but these cloudscapes, against a dark ground are heavily impregnated with strong colour. They’re heavy with rage rather than rain, and filtered with the kind of pollution you see on Johannesburg’s skyline at twilight. Is it beautiful? Or rotten with filth? The same issues of good and bad are threaded together and presented with directness and ambiguity to make you think.

Further, in this exhibition we see Penn playing with a diversity of approaches to intaglio – some interesting if imperfect forays into mezzotint, and some of her beautifully descriptive line work in delicately coloured sugarlift, aquatint and hardground, featuring the curious abstraction that drawing a cloud is all about, as well as a jewel-like, but suspiciously scary sense of colour. While you gaze into the heart of these green and red and orange lines with their calligraphic energy, you cannot help but wonder if they depict poisonous gases and the imminent collapsing of the air that we breathe, that we thought we understood.

Central to the exhibition is a sculptural work which retranslates the idea of a cloud into a bronze-cast tumour with cauliflower texture and a weightiness that you can feel in your lungs as you look upon it.

Cloud of Unknowing is a smart and sophisticated exhibition that lacks smug slickness or earnest didactic content – the work is beautifully rendered but has the humility and spirit of discursiveness to leave you both aesthetically pleased and morally troubled at the same time.

  • Cloud of Unknowing, by Robyn Penn is at David Krut Projects in Parkwood, Johannesburg, until August 6. 011 447 0627 or www.davidkrut.com