Writing Art History Since 2002

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Hazel Friedman on Satan’s choir at the heaven’s gate by Conrad Botes & Prints from the long day by Claudette Schreuders

One would be forgiven for believing a creative coitus of sorts had occurred between Conrad Botes and Claudette Schreuders at the Michael Stevenson Gallery. Botes, after all, is renowned mostly for his flat, neon palette, rapier-sharp graphics and brash montages, rather than the painted wood colon sculptures which constitute the hallmarks of Schreuders’ oeuvre. Yet, at the risk of stating the obvious in relation to this exhibition, sculptures dominate Botes’ installation in one room, while Schreuders’ display is comprised entirely of lithographs featuring the pantheon of now-familiar characters articulated in her sculptures. But the coupling is more the product of savvy curating than a deliberate collaborative exchange on the part of the artists – and it works well.Having said this, there is something incestuous about this dual showing. In a way both Schreuders and Botes have become the poster offspring of counter-Calvinism, the brother and sister of new era boere-brats and other post-apartheid rebels. Their careers have reached stellar heights, globally, yet their idioms remain rooted in the twin tenets of volk en vaderland. Both white and Afrikaans-speaking, they are acutely in touch with the ironies of their cultural legacy and ‘alien-nation’. Both have constructed their own parallel, insular universes. Schreuders’ world is self-contained and protective, populated by an inchoate, endearingly banal suburban cast of lovers, family and fantasies. Although outwardly more frenzied, Botes’ universe is equally self-contained. His unhinged characters and visceral narratives about corrupt hierarchies, abuses of power and domination to provide a means of mitigating and mediating his rage and angst.Preacher, Conrad Botes 2007, enamel on jelutong, oregon pine, 640x352x175mmSchreuders’ lithographs – although largely derivative of her sculptures – exert a disquieting power that belies their apparent naivety. Although infused with narratives, suggested through idiosyncratic details and deadpan titles, they appear primarily self-referential, suspended like cut-outs against an opaque backdrop. A sense of displacement prevails, particularly in works like Missing Person, which becomes emblematic of the entire series of lithographs. In this work Schreuders has depicted herself in school attire, with the glazed stare of a child traumatised almost into a state of inertia. If not literally missing, there a sense of not being present, of orbiting life, while not actually inhabiting it. But there’s also the danger of these works becoming bland and their endearing ‘strangeness’ dissipating, through repetitiveness, which sometimes reads as formulaic.A similar warning applies to Botes’ work. With their enlarged heads, his cadaverous sculptures recall the forms carved for ancestor worship in traditional African societies. But they are also ghoulish caricatures of faith and patriarchy, consumed by their own neuroses and sense of displacement. Botes, at his best, is achingly, darkly funny; at worst, his send-ups of faith, fatherhood, fidelity and every other f-word that comes to mind become over-soaked in their own shit, blood and semen. The fact that he is such a remarkable draughtsman sweetens the rancidness of his vision and provides the seductive hook that yanks us into his theatre of the damned and demented.Whether it’s the scatological Passion of the (white) rat, buried in theological pooh, rendered skinless and headless by a black Lara Croft look-alike, or his pantheon of men with flaccid penises immersed in various acts of self-marking and mutilation, Botes’ vision is unrelentingly, obsessively dystopian. But this too is becoming a tad over-played. Crude and lewd renditions of incest in the Boland, hypocrisy in the church and psychosis in the corridors of power seemed deliciously subversive in the comic book format and within the context of apartheid. But Botes’ ongoing recapitulations of castration complexes and the living dead, not to mention pain and porn. while still salubriously appealing, are in danger of resembling schlock-horror re-runs. Botes is too good an artist to let that happen.Hazel Friedman
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