David Koloane

Association of Visual Arts Cape Town

At his best, David Koloane can lay meaningful claim to being one of the important artists in recent decades in South Africa. This is largely because Koloane, though very much part of his time, was also somewhat out of step with his contemporaries, always ploughing a different kind of artistic furrow, signally avoiding the representational clichés and expressionist excesses of urban black or township art of recent decades. Koloane’s dogged concern, instead, has been with reinventing the creative philosophies of colour, mark and material (though not the historical forms) of abstract expressionism, in the service of rendering up the forms and textures of a peculiarly South African township experience.What this led to is a sometimes memorable, compelling and highly personalised stylisation of the subject matter of South Africa’s townships, defined above all by an idiosyncratic but powerfully appropriate sense of light and colour. Koloane characteristically uses colour and the textures of line and paint in such a way as to create a register of light that can best be described as a murk, a dense and complex register that is more than anything a degradation of light. It is as though a smoky and almost palpable atmosphere were intervening between the viewer and the subject. Though the light and atmosphere of the townships is the stock in trade of urban black artists, uniquely among his contemporaries, Koloane paints the dense smoke-inflected light of the townships in much the same way as JMW Turner paints the light of empire over sea.His expressive and representational realisation makes the canvas into a site of subliminally emotive suggestion as much as a representational equivalent of observed reality. In this swirling murk of atmosphere, Koloane’s drawing is unusually effective. Crude and primitivising, forms emerge as a mess of scratches barely articulating shape, achieving its affect at times almost as a coming into being. Thus, for instance, the characteristic and often repeated motif in Koloane of township dogs, hardly visible and just about canine in the primal murk, emerge as barely definable and threatening presences, rather than simply mongrels.In a similarly abstracting way, Koloane has essayed the subject matter of people in cities — inner city Johannesburg, Joubert Park and Hillbrow notably. While the city is overwhelming in scale, Koloane nevertheless (and surprisingly) contrives to humanise it through a naïve, childlike patterning, reclaiming it in the same gesture in the human consciousness. This kind of space, in which a species of acquired simplicity and an undeniable integrity of vision blurs the division between the seer and what is seen, and renders the inside of consciousness and the exterior of reality as one thing, is what defines Koloane’s best practice as an artist. And there is a good deal of this best practice on the current show. He has done them often enough, but Koloane’s township scenes remain compelling, his awkward and somehow disjunctive view of the human in the mist remains expressive of a spiritual colonisation of space in the artist’s vision. But not all the work on the exhibition was painted on a good day. There are a series of portrait drawings and watercolours that, for this reviewer at least, lose the aesthetic plot. As always in Koloane’s figuration, the actual generating of form is achieved by crude and deceptively ham-fisted scratchings (Koloane’s drawing always looks as though he is picking up a pencil for the first time). When it works the primitivising is to abstractly expressionist effect, somewhere between referential image and the energies of the mark itself. But sometimes it doesn’t work, and the tensions are not generated between the action of drawing on one side and the image generated on the other. What starts off as awkward and inexpressive mark making ends up as the same, awkward and inexpressive mark making.Less also remains less in some of the landscapes and street scenes, notably those where Koloane is not exploring specific qualities of light or atmosphere, but where he is relying instead on folksy moments of genre observation to build the image. Here in the absence of the binding and transformative qualities of atmosphere, Koloane becomes clumsy, and worse than this, loses the sense of the almost inchoate that haunts in his more definitive work.
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