Writing Art History Since 2002

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Reconsidering the transience of female beauty, Cara van der Westhuizen has created a collection of what may best be described as curiosity cabinets for her first solo exhibition, Venus Revisited. Van der Westhuizen’s hand-made cabinets house overlays of glass panels upon which she has lithographed medieval and renaissance representations of Venus and Eve along with an array of clinical charts, diagrams, and symbols that speak of impermanence.

These are participatory pieces – drawers open to reveal glass layers of flora, fauna, and coded messages; images are altered by sliding glass panels in and out of wall mounted fittings; and transparencies and shadows are ‘projected’ onto the wall by pulling hinged glass panels toward the light. There are also movable diagrams of internal organs that overlay the obsolete icons of female nudity. Into all of this the viewer’s reflection is interwoven by scattered bits of reflective mirror film as a reference to narcissism and vanity.The eight floor pieces and nine wall mounted works that make up Venus Revisited are intended to be individual works of art, but collectively they function as an installation. This is a distinct and slightly mysterious environment evocative of doctors’ rooms and museum exhibits from some earlier century (even though Van der Westhuizen drew her inspiration from boudoir furniture). Much of the achieved effect is due to the prevalence of glass, which not only has a strong visual presence, but its transparency and reflective nature are of obvious symbolic value. Essential to the artist’s extensive layering, glass also enables the viewer to see beyond the surface, metaphorically as well as physically.This exhibition is decidedly rich in art historical dialogue and references – particularly references to medieval and renaissance imagery and iconography. But Van der Westhuizen’s methodology – her appropriation and demystification of art historical imagery, and the changes in meaning she effects through manipulation of context – are all grounded in Surrealism. Venus Revisited owes a debt to Surrealism, not only for such obvious precedents as Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23), but also for concepts like the “collage aesthetic” (the uniting of “distant realities” to achieve a new and unexpected result).Van der Westhuizen, however, does not share the irony of her surrealist predecessors. She transports the viewer not through a glass darkly, but longingly. What comes across here, more than the transience of physical beauty, is a nostalgia for the mystique and intricacies of the past. What is most seductive about this Venus Revisited is not Venus or Eve, but rather its intricacies – the tromp l’oeil effects, the shadows, the contents of its drawers and panels, the hidden images and messages, and the obsessive perfectionism with which it is packaged. This is what seduced the artist, and this is what seduced this viewer.

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