Writing Art History Since 2002

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Goodman gallery | Johannesburg

CECIL SKOTNESStrange to return to Skotnes as an adult. One of the main pioneers of modern art in South Africa, he was one of the few local artists we studied at school. As a teenager on the brink of life, I was terrified by what I saw. I found his images stark and scary – more akin to torturous Picasso than easy-breezy Matisse, whose sensuality unfurled through Irma Stern and Maggie Laubscher. His linear incisions in dry wood spoke of a dark intelligence and a kind of Germanic control that was foreign to me, and made me nervous. His erect totemic figures were chillingly otherworldly, their stigmatic tongues uttering strange stringy songs. Perhaps Skotnes’ work has a lot more to do with sex and repression than I was ready for.These days it’s a whole different story, an eruption of wild vivifying colour as I enter the Goodman to take in Contemplation, “a show celebrating his life as one of South Africa’s great artists as well as his eightieth birthday”. The paintings are a burst of blue and red, the blue of the southern sky and the red of the desert maxed to hyperreal intensity. Is this where his preoccupation with different aspects of the South African and Namibian landscape have taken him? To a kind of liberation? The paint seems to glow with the busting, freaking sense of life he still possesses at 80. And what a life. Born in 1926 in a poor borough in East London, he fought in World War II with South African troops against the fascists in Italy where, after the end of the war, he studied painting in Florence under Heinrich Steiner. When he returned to South Africa, he studied art at the University of the Witwatersrand and became a founder member of the Amadlozi group with Guiseppe Cattaneo, Cecily Sash, Sydney Kumalo and Edoardo Villa – the name, chosen by Skotnes, means “spirit of our ancestors”. His signature graphics and painted, incised wood panels were an influence on the members of the Polly Street Art Centre, one of the few openings for black artists under apartheid, which he ran until 1966.Still not tamed by the years, his canvases shriek with intensity, but somehow the song is less trapped, the virile energy behind them more freely spewed into the land and the dream of beyond. And yet, there is great deliberation in the hanging of the show, its balance and symmetry setting up a charged dynamic between the works, that is resoundingly Zen in its restraint. The prints flank the gallery, colour to the west, black and white to the east. The oil paintings encase the centre and in the hub of the space is a wooden sculpture, suspended like a fish in water. All very cleanly ceremonial, so the sense of the show takes on a spatial dimension. When I say the sense of the show I mean the content of Skotnes’ work, that spooky vein of ritual madness that runs through his immense oeuvre: the kings, the worshippers, the changelings, the rites of passage, the shape-shifting, transmogrification and metamorphosis. It seems like a heathen post-Christian universe he depicts, but the fish is present everywhere and, if you look at the alignment of his works, the tall elongated portraits and stretched horizontal landscapes, the shape of the cross emerges over and over again between the planes. Which makes sense for a twentieth century artist battling down his conscience in a post-Freudian world. Although banished to abstraction, the crucifix is never quite gone from the scene. But if his current paintings are anything to go by, perhaps redemption lies for Skotnes in the elemental exuberance of land, water and sky – a kind of noisy heaven right here on this earth.

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