Writing Art History Since 2002

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Michael Stevenson | Cape Town

From the Fanfare series, The Duchess, 2004, mixed media, 50 x 35cm, Tattooed Man, 2004, mixed media, 50 x 35cmPeter Clarke’s series Fanfare began as a playful project on the side that soon took on a life of its own with a voracious appetite for expansion. The fan-shaped artworks each commemorate a real or imaginary character, living or dead, through a combination of collage and narrative text. These artworks grew in number over the past decade until December last year when 100 of them graced the pristine walls of the Michael Stevenson Contemporary Gallery as a composite series. More characters are still suggesting themselves for inclusion in Fanfare’s expanding hall of fame and Clarke is still busy creating new fans.The characters are drawn from biblical, literary, political, mythological and art historical sources, among others. Icarus, Alexander the Great, Lazarus, and Mozart keep company with A Lady of the Night, Comrade Lenin, a Refugee and Isamu Noguchi. At the head of each artwork is a collage fan in the shape of an arc to deftly symbolize the character it represents. Clarke says he chose the fan shape because of its presence and the way it opens up in a kind of revelation. The fan also includes an element of fun, which the artist concedes has nudged itself into his work.Clarke is often inspired by colourful junk mail that he recycles into his collages. Aside from the Fanfare series, he creates foldout books from junk mail collage that pack away into beautiful handcrafted boxes. He says: “It is really intriguing watching people’s reactions to those… they’re fun, and they discover sneaky little things.”Clarke wears three creative hats, as poet, painter and printmaker; Fanfare draws them all together. His handwritten narrative forms the second element underneath the collage fan. The text occasionally takes the form of a poem but more often comprises a series of imagined thoughts in a stream of consciousness that distils the character of the chosen individual. Clarke captures the essence of complex characters, sometimes in only a few lines.Most South Africans are familiar with the iconic photograph of Hector Petersen being carried through the streets in the student uprising of 1976 with his screaming sister by his side. The fate of the boy who carried Petersen remains a mystery, however. Clarke heard this boy’s mother on radio in 2003 appealing for help to locate him but she died recently none the wiser. Clarke says: “I was particularly struck by this because the story is incomplete, so little is known.”His fan dedicated to ‘an unknown youth’ goes some way to filling this void. Clarke writes: “We look at this little group of young people on their bloody journey, held forever visually within the time frame of the picture depicting a specifically violent historical moment. Who are you? You are nameless. But simply because of your spontaneous expression of compassion you have become forever a noble being.”Stanley Pinker and Hylton Nel show their works alongside and the synergies between the artists are quite striking. All three deliver biting socio-political commentary with some irreverence but coated with wit, grace and style. Nel shares with Clarke a passion for both text and visual imagery and fuses the two in his idiosyncratic ceramic vases, plates and figurines. He works in a studio in the tiny Karoo town of Calitzdorp but his observations are anything but parochial. “George Bush is such a great guy”, he writes tongue-in-cheek on one of his plates.Pinker exhibits works from his private collection. He resonates with Clarke’s playfulness, particularly his quirky sense of fun in constructions like All Balls and No Mystery. Here, humour is a primary device of social criticism – in this case the worshiping of sport over other worthy concerns. Pinker also shares a sense of the theatrical, most literally with constructions like The Hyperboreans.Michael Stevenson has published a book on Fanfare. It is arguably a superior format for contemplating the series, which demands quiet, introspective study and time to read all the text. He has also published a book about Pinker’s life to coincide with the exhibition and the artist’s 80th birthday.

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