Writing Art History Since 2002

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Art South Africa v5i3 Review

Berni Searle’s work continues to resonate with freshness, relevance and conviction, maintaining a relentless challenge to art values and the exploration of her own identity, enabling her works to be personal as well as universal, if oft ambiguous statements. Approach is a landmark show, displayed concurrently with different curatorial voices, in Johannesburg, Cape Town and South Florida, and having justified the publication of an impressive anthology.The Johannesburg leg of the project is loosely chronological, but not comprehensive. It features works informed by stills of Searle’s face and body, transformed by blind embossing, replete with colourful and historically evocative spices, as in Profile (2002), and also with images from Colour Me (2001) and Lifeline (1999). The exhibition also features the video installation Snow White (2001), in which Searle gracefully uses flour as a medium, reflecting on its connotations of sustenance and its irrevocable whiteness. The show culminates with About to Forget (2005) and Approach (2006). Searle addresses concept in her work with a brutal honesty that manifests in image and gesture; it is overwhelmingly beautiful in its simple iconic resonance.Filling an oblong space, About to Forget (2005) potently envelopes one in the mystery and guttural reality of silhouettes melded with either flowing, spilling blood, or gusts of desert sand. The figures arise like ghosts and the progression of the work shows their degradation in a landscape, created with crepe paper and water, but filmed to dramatic scale.Searle is not self-explanatory about the identity of these cut-out figures. As a result they become everyman: bolstered and blasted by currents. The potency of this is the apparent unrecognisability of the technique. We hear the wind and the water. We understand the figures’ vulnerability in the face of the environment. The simplicity of the gesture is almost biblical. About to Forget recalls the tale of Lot’s wife, turned to a pillar of salt because of her curiosity to see the destruction of others.Approach, which bears the title of the show, has several sub-names, identifying filmed manifestations and photographic stills of the piece: Night Fall, Free Fall, Yield and Descent. Here Searle navigates a mountainous heap of grape skins in a Cape wine farm. Resonantly powerful, it evokes the simple terror in children’s nursery rhymes. Murmuring, inarticulate, the soundtrack turns sinister as the work unfolds; Searle’s body rolls down this mountain in a dramatic crescendo. Like bees, the skins inflict themselves on her prone body, covering and not covering her; glancing off her form and hiding its anatomical logic in its falling rhythms. The astonishing beauty of the image of Searle standing poised at the summit of this mountain of skins is timeless.The insistent magnificence of Searle’s work forces the viewer to overlook credibility shifts that are unfortunately the product of dodgy gallery acumen. Of negligible concern are the bedraggled, frayed curtains that aim to bring light-tightness to the space. It is the door to the space in which About to Forget is housed that is more of a problem; it is evidently a thoroughfare for gallery support staff. When staff walk willy-nilly through an artwork, opening the door and showering the space with shafts of bright outdoor light, it can destroy a work’s whole impact, potentially breaking the spell of the work and chasing the viewer away.That said, the show is thoughtfully positioned in the gallery: the figure of Jane Alexander’s Integration Programme (1992) seems to stare one down, from across exhibition halls, linking the gallery’s context. Approach holds its own with wrenching integrity; it sadly also highlights the JAG’s plight in maintaining professional seamlessness for an exhibition of this calibre.

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