If you feel you must reach for European tools to access Preller’s life and work, rather than the surrealists or symbolists, you should look to Gauguin or Pechstein, Stern or Battiss, who fought to understand the exotic in a parochial world
The challenge of curating a show to retrieve an artist from myth and re-introduce him to a new public is stiff. Thirty-four years after dying, Alexis Preller remains cold, inaccessible but respected. Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows operates in the formal rubric of previous monograph shows held at the Standard Bank Gallery. The work assembled in the main exhibition space is ranged visually, not chronologically, and is accompanied with texts by Esmé Berman. The visual rhyming between works allows the eye to slip across them with satisfying ease. The downstairs space, curated by Karel Nel, is filled with objects quoted in the paintings, as well as less well known painterly gems.Preller’s status as “child of Africa” is clear in how he engages with hieratic values, and pares down and works up iconicity in Ndebele women’s traditional garb, or in his stylised handling of associations specific to Akan, Masai, Pedi, Benin or ancient Greek traditions. His tendency to slice into his work with a brush creates illusions of cracked surfaces, scratched with age or striated with cultural torsion.As you enter the circular space at the top of the stairs, it is as though you have stepped into a holy space. The chords of a massive imaginary organ echo across your sensibilities as you confront Two Angels (1970), Boy with a Crocodile (1964-5), Hieratic Women II (1955-7) and Primavera (1965), the four paintings allowed to dominate this exhibition entrance area, its walls painted steel grey. Flawlessly lit, these acutely coloured, hardly toned works establish a convincing outlook for a competent, comprehensive, respectable exhibition. It doesn’t falter in this promise.In the downstairs space, the Zanzibar doors are gorgeous in their flamboyant tracery and sheer presence, but there are many source references displayed here; adulating an artist through his source material is oddly suspicious, lending arbitrary objects peculiar iconic status, as it perilously raises the artist himself to godhead.The black and white photographs of Mudif (1973), a house Preller built in an Arab tradition, contain allusions to an as yet unrevealed Preller. This is a man spontaneous enough to court crazy possibility to build a house of straw, as mystical and majestic as a Gothic cathedral. Yet these images are hidden in physiological afterthought: you see them on your way out, if you happen to turn your head in a particular direction. The show’s modernist habit in curation emphasises paintings as the mark of the genius; other mediums get sidelined.Returning upstairs, you engage with another text panel, this one explaining the logic informing Preller’s development. Reliant on ideas propagated by Joseph Campbell in the 1940s, it describes four layers of narrative, justifiable in Preller’s oeuvre. Shamanistic totems evolve into fertility images. The focus shifts to yielding a celebration of celestial lights and a pantheon of gods. Finally all mythical associations give way to man; iconic images become metaphors for spiritual and philosophical ideas and a celebration of the hero.In a further text panel, attention is drawn to the danger of imposing western labels on Preller’s work, as critics of his time did instinctively. The categorisations might superficially fit the work but they disingenuously pin it to ideologies that seemed feasible only because Preller was white. In his Still Life (1946), we see an African-evocative statue alongside a chair and a potted plant. The figure has two faces. It is split from cheekbone to groin. Could this be the artist engaging with his sexuality? With what it meant to be a white African? Is it a surreal gesture? A symbolic one? We do not know. It may have simply been a still life. If you feel you must reach for European tools to access Preller’s life and work, rather than the surrealists or symbolists, you should look to Gauguin or Pechstein, Stern or Battiss, who fought to understand the exotic in a parochial world. Another powerful chord of an imaginary organ happens in the presence of You will never know (1971), a painting strategically placed to inflame your eye, wherever you are. Striking in its loose aquamarine washes, a break from his earlier regimented work, it is given life with bursts of orange, revealing Preller as audacious colourist rather than mysterious symbolist or pretentious European-yearning surrealist.Preller’s work was last shown collectively in 1972. He was still alive. It was viewed in an apartheid state proud of its explicit homophobia. Works were sold to private and public collections; the united front dissipated, and piecemeal reflections of Preller’s work were all students and critics could access. This forged an understanding that Preller was neither prolific nor important. While his aesthetic might have held curiosity, there wasn’t enough of it on which to base art historical assumptions. Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows remedies the lacuna, even when it slips in the dangerous path of courting solemn values. Which summarises my gripe with the show: it does not sufficiently engage the magic to seduce. You leave impressed, but not floored by wonder.