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ART TIMES | 2012 IN REVIEW / SEAN O”TOOLE

Mikhael Subotzky at the opening of his show: Retinal Shift at The SA National Gallery: Photo: Michaela Irving

2012 in review by Sean O’Toole There is a single funny scene in Cloud Atlas, a painfully convoluted film by the makers of The Matrix series currently in circulation. It involves Tom Hanks delivering a remarkably bad portrayal of an Irish gangster, Dermot Hoggins. The Duster, as he is nicknamed, has just published a book. Following a tête-à-tête with a waggish critic at a social event, Duster violently ejects the critic out of a window. Splat! The simulated death of the critic in this overblown film speaks to a deep wish fulfilment, one that many slighted artists will identify with. “So who’s expired in an ending flat and inane quite beyond belief now?” quips Hanks, in a scene that makes the careers of Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham seem respectable. The lesson: we don’t mourn the death of a critic, we simply make bad punning jokes. Robert Hughes died in August. True, the great Australian critic never made any meaningful pronouncements on South African art – although Amazon, in a wonderful slip of the hand, has mistakenly substituted Robert Hodgins’s name for that of Hughes as Deborah Bell and William Kentridge’s collaborator on the 1986 book Hogarth in Johannesburg. Despite not paying attention to us, allot of artists here paid careful attention to Hughes. He is one of those rare art critics who delivered more than just “foam,” an elegant word used by Roland Barthes to describe the flotsam that routinely washes up with the media tide. Sure, Hughes got the scratchy, scrawled work of Jean-Michel Basquiat wrong, but time and again he shouted a valuable point: price is not coequal with value or quality in the art market. It was a point repeated by Piet Viljoen three months after Hughes’s passing. “A serious investor would be crazy to trust the market to price her investments,” Viljoen, founder of asset management firm RE:CM, stated in a speech at the launch of The New Church, a retrofitted late Victorian house on New Church Street that is home to South Africa’s first privately owned contemporary art museum devoted to work made after 1994. “For a real investment value determines price, while for art price determines value. As a result, most art will never – and I do not use this word lightly – show any return at all, except possibly a negative one.” Viljoen’s collection runs to 480 works. For its inaugural showing Viljoen asked artist Penny Sioipis to make a selection. Most of the works she picked were very recently on view at Stevenson, Goodman, Whatiftheworld or SMAC. One artist on Subject as Matter, the name of Siopis’s cannily organised showcase of Viljoen’s interest in figuration, however delivers the viewer to a different period entirely. The name of that artist: Walter Battiss. Subject as Matter includes an undated oil on canvas titled Fook Island Alphabet. A 14

curious melding of text and abstract painted forms, the work compiles a long list of nonsense words. Noopie. Pob. Tibben. Seeing it reminded me of the “sculptural book object” – read old wooden tomato box – exhibited on Alet Vorster’s stand at this year’s Joburg Art Fair. (Gallery AOP’s stand, which also showed Jonah Sack’s gorgeous pen and ink Thunder Storm Installation, was hands down the best booth at the fair.) Entitled Thorncliff Boerdery, Battiss used the wooden box to narrate – in cursive script – the story of his trip to Oranjemund. He describes it as “a desert paradise”, also as “a dicey paradisey”. Battiss recently achieved R2,3 million at the November Strauss & Co auction in Johannesburg for a lurid paradisiacal fantasy painted in oil in 1950. Like Matisse, Battiss was an accomplished colourist. His later works drew inspiration from his travels to Greece and Seychelles. Like Stanley Pinker, that sorely overlooked Cape Town modernist who passed away in June, Battiss found allot of juice in the Mediterranean. Hughes, writing on Matisse, helps explain why. Celebrated for its chemical blue waters and uncomplicated kitchen manners, the Mediterranean gave modernism its “one practical utopia of the senses, a bourgeois Eden”. The draw of Battiss, I would argue, is seeing how, in a career far more exemplary than that of our trophy expressionists, he catered to and rejected the imperatives of bourgeois modernism and its stock scenographies. But this is meant to be a summary, not a sermon. My highlights from 2012: David Goldblatt’s On the Mines at Goodman Gallery – in the wake of Marikana, a timely and sober look at what was, and how it defines what is; the inclusion of Alfredo Jaar’s 1985 photographs from the Serra Pelada opencast mine in Brazil doubly enriched the viewing experience. Mikhael Subotzky’s Retinal Shift at Monument Gallery – his film installation is a thing of carefully choreographed beauty. Joost Bosland’s April Lunchtime Lecture at Michaelis – a funny and smart account by Stevenson’s curator of his “Gee whizz, it happened 15 years ago” tribute show to the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale. Also: hanging out with Mohau Modisakeng, a talent to watch; seeing a shirtless Stuart Bird dancing to Rage Against the Machine as part of Belinda Blignaut’s whimsical group exhibition A Shot To The Arse; encountering former UCT student Theaster Gates’s Huguenot House project and fellow Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz’s absorbing installation at dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel; Jane Alexander’s career survey at the Savannah College of Art and Design; Rodney Graham’s Edgar Allen Poe books at his Berlin solo; and – as if proof were needed that Brett Murray, Kendell Geers and Ayanda Mabulu are not alone in their penile obsessions – all those roadside posters across South Africa offering penis enlargements. SA ART TIMES. Dec 2012 - Jan 2013

SA Art Times Dec 2012- Jan 2013  

South African Art Times,

SA Art Times Dec 2012- Jan 2013  

South African Art Times,