Conrad Botes: Satan's Choir at the Gates of Heaven

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MICHAEL STEVENSON Hill House De Smidt Street Green Point 8005 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 Cape Town tel +27 (0)21 421 2575 fax +27 (0)21 421 2578

Cover Devil’s Dictionary, 2007



By ivor Powell

Say ‘angst’ or ‘existential’ and you get a picture of a sunless person of indeterminate sex, living somewhere on the border between teenage wasteland and ruined adulthood, hollow-cheeked, eyes ringed either with kohl or the last attempted suicide, a figure slinking through the shadows of time and space, thin-legged, extravagantly shod in overlarge Doc Martens as it strives, apparently, to morph into a crow. This is a pity. For one thing, the best of latter-day existentialist cultural production is much more robust and less precious than that. For another, the particular species of alienation that arises from Friedrich Nietzsche’s announcement on the death of God, and its elaboration in the denial of all essential truth or transcendent order, continues to address us – in its characteristically half-visceral, half-philosophical manner – a hundred years on. The immediacy of the existentialist vision strikes me with some force looking at the sculptures and two-dimensional works that collectively make up Satan’s Choir at the Gates of Heaven, Conrad Botes’ mixed-media show at Michael Stevenson Gallery. Botes himself is at pains to point out that, despite the preponderance of (debased) Christian iconography – in the references to Satan and Heaven in the exhibition title; to The Passion of, pointedly, the White Rat as detailed in 58 stations; to the Pietà image with its gorilla Madonna, serially repeated in the two-dimensional version of the Tree of Knowledge – the religious imagery that runs through the exhibition is neither sacred nor, to put it mildly, redemptive. Fans of the salutary profanity of Bitterkomix can heave a sigh of relief here: Conrad Botes has not been saved, nor is he about to be. This work


is not in any way about grappling with belief, looking for meaning outside of oneself to give order to everyday experience. Just the opposite really… The spiritual stratum that Botes mines is an archaeological and largely decomposed mulch of broken images, holy books and shattered votive statues – the detritus of the imagery of the Christian religion, left over when God died. Its discursive elements – devils, the sacraments of salvation, the conundrums of passion, divinity and mortality, the mystical narrative of good versus evil – continue to carry an archetypal and visceral charge, a kind of trace memory of their formerly numinous status. But, in a reappropriation that is as much post-modern as it is post-existentialist, Botes’ symbols are cut off from their symbolic reference and the version of the world which guaranteed their meaningfulness in the first place. They are crippled and radically dysfunctional – manifesting more their own redundancy than anything else – no longer capable of transcendence, or even of saving themselves. The numinous reduced in the cauldron of discourse to splatter. The debasement of the sacred as played out in Botes’ exhibition is underlined at the same time by the least-common-denominator, low art, inexpressiveness of the graphic style. In this register, the Holy Ghost becomes a kind of inflated bladder, the Passion protagonist a white rat, while devils are Bambi-horned and, in a sort of evolutionary in-joke, the Madonna is a gorilla. At one level it plays as satire. But there is also something of a philosophical egg dance. Cut off from their cosmological reference, the symbols of the sacred become tokens of that very meaninglessness they were invented to transcend, with the quasi-archetypal charge that they

carry over from the context of religion serving only to invoke, viscerally, interior conditions of squalor, hopelessness and essentially onanistic unrequitement. All that is left is the self – existence – but existence is all but impossible in the forest of damaged symbols. In this vein: the Autobiographer inscribing his own text on his own person; the sacred heart image becoming an internal Inspection for one of Botes’ boxed figures on the wall; Zombies weeping interior tears of blood into undead tissue; a dispirited little amputee devil in a red-resinfilled tin bath, styled as a Sailor but sailing nowhere in nothing much more than his own wastes; two likely lads banging their heads against the lifeless stump of the Tree of Knowledge; a figurine inscribing the contents of his consciousness in crude graffiti as the Devil’s Dictionary on the gallery wall. The only tutelary spirit is the Weeping Alcoholic looking out from his platform, drink in hand, through bleeding eyes at the spiritual wasteland before him. These are images of a profound angst and disillusion, made only more chilling and affecting by the essentially interior and passive presence of the carved wood figures themselves. All the repository of iconography is reduced to the status of the cartoon, and as cartoon figure the protoheroic White Rat plays out his metaphysical Passion to end up as carrion, hanging from a thorn tree, the unregarded trophy of vultures. But is that all there is to it? Yes, if one enters Botes’ world… and no. Yes because Botes’ vision is deeply and undeniably driven by an exuberant and unremitting cynicism. No because, while there is no clue to redemption, there is a profound and acid liberation in laughing at it all. And, especially when he is at his most angst-filled, Conrad Botes is never self-pitying, and he is almost always corrosively funny.


RIGHT Untitled 2007 Oil-based paint on glass 100 x 100cm OveRleAF Tree of Knowledge 2007 Acrylic, serigraphy, thread, oil-based paint on glass, canvas 200 x 455cm (four panels)

Tree of Knowledge Detail

Autobiographer 2007 enamel on jelutong, iroko 31 x 31 x 140cm including pedestal




THIS PAGe Devil’s Dictionary 2007 enamel on obeche, iroko 35 x 71 x 160cm including ladder, installation dimensions variable

OveRleAF, leFT TO RIGHT Gates of Heaven, Jack, Edward




Jack 2007 enamel on jelutong, iroko 34 x 34 x 108cm including pedestal PAGe 14 Gates of Heaven 2007 Pink leather, laminated plywood, jelutong 112 x 43 x 161cm


Edward 2007 enamel on obeche, iroko 29 x 29 x 117cm including pedestal Detail overleaf




leFT TO RIGHT Inspection 2007 enamel on jelutong, plywood 64 x 35.2 x 17.5cm Preacher 2007 enamel on jelutong, Oregon pine 64 x 35.2 x 17.5cm Salesman 2007 enamel on meranti, plywood 62 x 35 x 13cm



Salesman Detail


Preacher Detail



Tree of Knowledge 2007 enamel on obeche and yellowwood, iroko 93.5 x 70 x 171cm including pedestal


Weeping Alcoholic 2007 enamel on jelutong, Oregon pine 68 x 58 x 98cm including pedestal (wall-mounted) Sailor 2007 enamel on obeche, zinc, epoxy resin, iroko 66 x 66 x 100cm including pedestal




leFT Sailor Detail RIGHT Weeping Alcoholic Detail




PAGeS 33-39 The Passion of the White Rat 2007 Series of 58 reverse glass paintings, oil-based paint on glass 21 x 21cm each; final panel 46 x 21cm PAGeS 30-31 Installation view









Weeping Zombies 2007 9 reverse glass paintings, enamel on glass 60 x 60cm each OveRleAF Details




PietĂ 2006 Wall painting with glass roundels, oil-based paint on glass Dimensions variable Photo: Kathy Skead

Untitled 2007 Wall painting with glass roundels, oil-based paint on glass Dimensions variable OveRleAF AND TITle PAGe Details of roundels Photos: Jan verboom


Conrad Botes thanks his wife, Jeanne.

CATAlOGUE 27 May 2007 editor Sophie Perryer Photography Mario Todeschini (unless otherwise credited) Image repro Ray du Toit Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town

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