Writing Art History Since 2002

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Goodman Gallery Johannesburg

Diane Victor is angry – bleak too. Using a stark monotone colour palette, she presents an unapologetically austere vision that is at once disturbing and brazen. Take her Disaster Series, which references Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, itself a dark and pessimistic body of works that dealt with barbarity and human atrocity. Similar to Goya, Victor uses her etchings as a vehicle for critical social commentary. Drawing her material from current news, she does not sugarcoat her dissatisfaction. Topics include the crisis in Zimbabwe (Mad Bob), hijacking, witch-hunts and the failures of the public health system.Funeral March converts a minibus taxi into a moving coffin, its roof prized open to reveal its occupants lying stiffly packed together like macabre sardines. A deliberately skewed perspective makes the taxi tip forward into the cluttered foreground, which teams with mourners. Complex presents an up-market townhouse development barricaded by high walls; the backdrop is an expansive township horizon. Victor delivers these insights with deadpan wit. Her triptych The Good Shepard, The Good Doctor and An Honest Politician offers further evidence of her ability to combine wit and biting social comment. The life-size portraits display archetypal authorial figures, supposedly exemplary role models that are anything but. The priest, divine rays emerging from underneath his priestly garments, holds a gnarled phallic cross by his crotch. The doctor stares back at the viewer through thick spectacles; he clearly has difficulty with his vision. Against the white lapel of his lab coat a shadowy Aids ribbon floats like a ghostly spectre. Dissident or quack? The beak, which appears from behind him, gives the viewer a clear sense of Victor’s position. The politician wears a pin-striped suited, his pants down, arms open, palms flat in guilty culpability. A cat caught drinking the bowl of cream. This unholy trinity converses across the gallery space with the charcoal triptych Spoiled Gods. Victor renders the trio of Christ, Madonna and Bishop without any of the meticulous detail displayed on the three etchings described above. Victor uses a light charcoal line to smudge her divine figures and the works appear as if ravaged by water damage. The incongruity of medium and subject has a visually captivating effect and displays Victor’s artistic virtuosity. One of Victor’s major strengths is her technical precision – it is rigorous to the point of obsession. She further employs her blotchy charcoal technique in a series of portraits of dubious figures from South African history (including the murderers Barend Strydom and William Kekana), and introduces her signature deep blind embossing method in a work titled Learning Posture. It shows the back of a formidably large black man. He is clothed only in an ornately patterned white Victorian corset, the densely saturated dark areas in positive contrast to the textured shadow play of the embossed white areas. This visual tension translates into a generative interpretive conversation on how physical, psychological and sexual violence – a recurrent theme in Victor’s oeuvre – is articulated on the body. The absent body is the subject of her series Missing Persons. Again Victor uses her medium to facilitate the expression of her subject matter. The series is a continuation of her experimentation with smoke as a visual medium. Used previously in her HIV portraits, Victor creates individualized figures and faces from carbon deposits left by holding a flame close to paper. Drawing her source material from the photo database of the Missing Persons Bureau, her series is a document of those who have vanished like the smoke that constitutes them. The fragile and hazy nature of the portraits echoes the instability of the memories of those who are looking for them. No longer a part of society, they drift like intangible spectres on white paper.Although heavy handed at times, Victor’s uncompromising visual expression is commendable. She does not water down taboo content under ‘safe’ visual schemata for the sake of being more palatable or marketable. Similarly, her adherence to more traditional art forms, which she still manages to render in an arresting and innovative manner, suggests that one does not need to succumb to flashy flavour-of-the-month media in order to be successful.

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