All Smoke & Mirrors

Diane Victor’s recent exhibition at Goodman Gallery Cape, once again demonstrates her ability to combine flawless technical skill with boundless imagery and sharp messages, while still looking very current. Comprising 65 individual works, Victor’s All Smoke and Mirrors at Goodman is made up of five distinct series of drawings, etchings, and embossings.

Diane Victor’s recent exhibition at Goodman Gallery Cape, once again demonstrates her ability to combine flawless technical skill with boundless imagery and sharp messages, while still looking very current. Comprising 65 individual works, Victor’s All Smoke and Mirrors at Goodman is made up of five distinct series of drawings, etchings, and embossings.

The show is built around Victor’s 2007/08 series, Drawings of Mass Destruction – a group of five works in charcoal picturing the imagined devastation of well-known South African sites. Generally understood as “post-9/11 fantasies”, these images have been described as “Responding to the mass media’s ‘morbid fascination with natural disasters, criminal violence and destruction’ “. But as is the case with much of Victor’s oeuvre, the works are multi-layered in meaning and also speak to the decay and decadence of the 21st century in much the same way that ruined elements of antiquity were used by renaissance painters to refer to the crumbling of Rome’s pagan society. This is particularly present in Victor’s bombed-out vision of the Voortrekker Monument and its associations with South Africa’s own “fallen Rome”.

Another layer of meaning that is active here is the disintegration of belief systems, a theme that is clearly articulated in Victor’s new series Extinct Beliefs. Informed by the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, this is a group illustrating the fantastic skeletons of an angel, a therianthrop, and Triton. Victor created the subtle “white-on-white” representations by combining the images of various genuine skeletons. These two new series work together to create an archive of a spiritually bankrupt society characterized by, as Suzi Gablik puts it in the Reenchantment of Art, “…a profound loss of moral orientation and meaning for life”, due to “The loss of myth, [and] the assumption that the only valid ways of knowing are logical and linear…”

Reiterating these issues throughout the exhibition, Victor turns her gaze to institutional corruption in the Unholy Alliance. A group of three life-sized etchings, the series satirizes – the Honest Politician caught with his pants-down; the Good Shepard, an impeccably proper priest with discrete sexual references; and the Good Doctor, paper stuffed in his ear and snake in hand. Previously shown in a different state in the 2006 Sasol Wax Award exhibition and Victor’s 2006 Goodman show in Johannesburg, the Unholy Alliance is now exhibited with recently completed embossing in the backgrounds and on some of the figures.

Similarly the sharply satiric Disasters of Peace series which was also included in the 2006 Goodman Johannesburg exhibition is now shown with six new etchings. A play on Goya’s famous Disasters of War series, this is a work in progress initiated in 2001, and now up to 30 etchings – all of which record events happening in South Africa. Illustrating that “society does not need a state of war to commit small atrocities…” these etchings also elucidate Victor’s exceptional ability to purposefully and pointedly employ sexual imagery.

Clearly the most extraordinary works in the Goodman exhibition are a group of eighteen portrait heads drawn with candle smoke. Victor lighted upon this technique in 2004 while teaching a class that required students to draw with alternative materials. At that time she had been invited to participate in Open End, a South African / German exchange exhibition dealing with HIV/AIDS. Assisting a student using candle smoke to make stencils, Victor suddenly recognized the material’s potential for creating ethereal and fragile portraits of people infected with HIV. She has since worked with smoke to create several extensive portrait series. That a technically savvy artist like Victor, would turn to such an unstable medium, is indicative of her unrelenting exploration of the temporal. And much of this exploration focuses on that aspect of the temporal characterized by decline, decay, and decadence. To this end Victor sees the world in much the same way as did the German Expressionists, a vision which has great poignancy for South Africa

Although the Goodman Gallery Cape show is somewhat repetitive vis-à-vis Victor’s 2006 show at Goodman Johannesburg and her 2005 Smoke Portraits at Michael Stevenson, she is an artist whose work bears repeating. Karen von Veh has written of her: ” The strength of Victor’s art lies not only in her technical mastery of graphic media but also in her intense responses to social injustices.” There is also a third element operative here – an uncanny ability to envision and articulate a wealth of images that cut to the bone.

sanford s. shaman