Writing Art History Since 2002

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I recently had the privilege of attending the most expansive showing ever of works by that giant of South African public sculpture, Edoardo Villa. That prospect alone might have been enough to get one’s juices flowing. But not only was it Villa, it was Villa in a baptismal moment – inaugurating the sculpture garden at the Nirox Foundation, a sublimely manicured estate in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind aimed at “advancing South African art globally, imparting skill and stimulating artistic expression”.

Edoardo Villa,The Friends (Standing figure x111 yellow and Standing figure x11 blue), 2006, steel and enamel paint, both 238 x 50 x 55cm. Courtesy artist and Everard Read Gallery I recently had the privilege of attending the most expansive showing everof works by that giant of South African public sculpture, EdoardoVilla. That prospect alone might have been enough to get one’s juicesflowing. But not only was it Villa, it was Villa in a baptismal moment- inaugurating the sculpture garden at the Nirox Foundation, asublimely manicured estate in the heart of the Cradle of Humankindaimed at “advancing South African art globally, imparting skill andstimulating artistic expression”.Jointly presented by Liza Essers of Liza Nicole Fine Art, Everard Read Gallery, and Benji Liebman’s Nirox, this showing of new and historic works by the man widely regarded as this country’s pre-eminent living sculptor was curated by Professors Karel Nel and Alan Crump, together with historian and biographer Amalie von Maltitz. Adding the crowning glory to this of amalgam of art aristocracy, the exhibition was due to be launched by none other than Nobel-prize laureate Nadine Gordimer, a long-time friend and associate of the sculptor.I confess that the fear of my stilettos puncturing the hallowed green lawns was the least of my anxieties on a night graced with such an untouchable line up. So I wore flat shoes instead and decided to approach the evening head on – with no airs, no graces, no adulation of VIP faces, but most importantly no socially sculpted expectations of how I might receive the work before me.On arrival I was struck by the delightful playfulness of Villa’s works, assembled in this vast and lush green park beneath the darkening trees at dusk. Like large fantastical toys they inhabit the landscape as alien creatures, their crazy colours a foreign, bold intrusion into a world of deep green plant life and rocky red earth. There are 58 of these monumental works across 15 hectares of landscaped parkland. They do not blend in, neutrally, organically, without ado. Instead, they cheekily and boldly assert themselves over their surroundings, turning the scene into something else, something foreign and strange that won’t be quiet or settle down. Strange giant birds readying themselves for flight or outsize toy spaceships about to blast off into orbit.This gives me a sense of Villa’s spirit and perhaps even a clue to his longevity. At 92 he is still furiously productive. And, if I am hearing the language of his sculptures correctly, not an easy ride, nor an easy soul to tame. Although people are wont to speak about the sensuality of his sculptures, it is more their stubborn maleness that strikes me – their libidinous forcefulness. There is nothing obliquely erotic or alluringly seductive about these works. Villa’s colours are so dazzling in their wild, pop playfulness, one’s gaze bounces off of his surfaces. They are boldly sexual forms – penetrative rather than receptive -¬ obstinately and wilfully phallocentric. And if they draw on an African artistic heritage, as both Nel and Gordimer emphasise, it is the uncompromising, commanding energetic masculinity of African culture. There might even be something of the unapologetic machismo of Chaka Zulu in these works – ruling hard and dancing on thorns.Almost every piece seems to be centred around an erection, sometimes more than one. Perhaps it is the same member in movement or perhaps some imagined orgiastic meltdown. There are the female parts too – the vessels, the receptacles, the recipients, the hot red lips and ecstatic licking tongues, but it is the virile male hardness of these metallic forms that gives them their prime tenor. And although some of the more recent works are less hard-edged, this is not a force that has been relinquished in the later years of his life. In this reluctance to surrender the virility of his youth, Villa is in the company of such greats as the poet WB Yeats who, eager to recapture the vigour of youth, underwent a Steinach rejuvenation operation in 1933 to re-stimulate his sex glands. Yeats sought in sexuality, as death neared, “the transcendental illumination of consciousness that ritual magic had once seemed to promise”.But Villa’s sculpture finds even more acute kinship in the writings of Philip Roth and JM Coetzee, who, like him, inhabit a post-feminist universe, rendering the machinations of their undying masculinity an even more compelling proposition. In novels like Everyman and The Human Stain, Roth’s central characters are libidinous old men who cannot give up on the hungry vitality of their youth, no matter how improper their lustfulness may have become. Similarly, in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, an aging professor’s hot liaison with one of his students results in his excommunication from the politically correct realms of the academy and his banishment into the wilderness of his conscience. In Slow Man, Paul Rayment, a retired photographer, loses his leg in a bicycle accident and spends his days lusting after Marijana Jokic, his earthy Eastern European day nurse, while in Diary of a Bad Year, Señor C, an aging author has the undying hots for Anya, the beautiful young woman whom he hires to type his manuscript. Speaking beneath the dark trees, illuminated by a kerosene lamp in the fast fading light of the day, Gordimer spoke of how Villa came to South Africa as an Italian prisoner of war. “Villa was very young then and he has given his entire life since then – his great gifts and unstinting energy – to us,” she said. And there sat the man himself, wearing a sexy hat and looking every bit the hip maestro at 92. Quiet on the night, but not in his nature.To my eyes, Villa’s sculptures have less in common with those of twentieth century behemoths Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore, than with the kinetic energy of works by American sculptor Alexander Calder and Umberto Boccioni, whose sculptures centred on the portrayal of movement, dynamism, speed, and technology. Villa’s forms invite interpretations of hypothetical movement. What would happen if this tubular form rocked back and forth? How would the other shapes around it be agitated or affected? Without the movement actually happening, one imagines it transpiring. And it is perhaps this movement in absentia – the mere suggestion of gesture – that makes his works so profoundly titillating. Still, bright, and frozen in time, they rouse the senses and provoke the neurons that connect the restless body to the ever-excitable mind. Alexandra Dodd is a cultural critic and independent editor based in Johannesburg

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