Writing Art History Since 2002

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Warren Siebrits Johannesburg

A year after showing her black and white retrospective Jo Ractliffe returns to Warren Siebrits with an overview of her recent colour work. The result is a slick and seductive exhibition underscored by an astute curatorial vision. The geographical and temporal proximity of Ractliffe’s show to David Goldblatt’s Intersections, hosted by the Goodman Gallery, made for a singularly unique event. In reviewing her work, tentative associations are prompted between these exhibitions. Long-time friends and colleagues, both practitioners have recently established colour photography as their primary medium – even though their representations of life couldn’t be more dissimilar.The ample catalogue accompanying Ractliffe’s show clearly outlines the curatorial intent, which encompasses the pivotal early work Bridges for Baldessari (1996), the video piece Love, Death, Sacrifice (1999), her epic Johannesburg Inner City Works (2000 – 2004), as well as a new body of work, entitled Real Life (2005). The latter series, singularly beautiful images of very mundane spaces, are the most arresting and engaging of the lot, and sees Ractliffe use found, and obviously highly personal, environments as her subjects.Stendhal said beauty is eternally allied with hope and art, promising happiness. In this sense Real Life are highly romantic images, and even Ractliffe’s process requires that she perform a romantic role. Rather than have a stand-in to witness the quiet events over her neighbour’s roof, she is the romantic figure defiant against nature, facing the imposing, unknowable void. This void is perhaps also associated with that particular combination of longing and failure the suburbs, as an emotion, tend to conjure.While the formal qualities of the new series evidences a break from the violent cinema of Ractliffe’s earlier sequence works, Real Life is also witness to those rare occasions when photography competes with painting, a competition Ractliffe actively manipulates through her awareness of photography’s uncertain oscillation between painting and cinema. She achieves a means to reconstruct what is real and what is art, and in the process dissolves several of the distinctions involved.As a title Real Life is appropriate. The locations represented are wholly anonymous: sites that are decidedly urban, but which hardly stick in the viewer’s memory as individual images. The viewer feels somewhat unsettled, attempting to assign the place an importance and meaning. The camera is located roughly at the same point, either looking up to the dusk sky and the neighbour’s roof or down to the static garden sculptures and living pets. While the eye is not really offered a fixed point of view there is evidence of weighty sentiment and emotion, even though there isn’t a great deal to actually see. Ractliffe describes things that we do not normally find remarkable. Her theme is the ordinary day, the private space, presented so finely that no information gets misplaced. As a collection of images and sentiments, Real Life perhaps speaks equally of the artist as of the subjects represented, and for this reason they offer a uniquely disquieting marriage of threat and magic.Over the road, Goldblatt’s intersections are corporeal and psychological, phenomenological and intellectual. The restraint of the composition relates to the feeling of oppression that often accompanies Goldblatt’s representations of social relationships, his subjects outwardly bound to one particular form of behaviour or role – seemingly for generations. While he is without question a chronicler of his time, the artistic composition and scale of his numerous photographs and their enigmatic content challenge a strictly documentary intention. Goldblatt’s work evidences an ongoing concern with the latent relationships between people and the organisational structures of their environment. His work comments on this country’s complex and troubled relationship to nature, landscape often presented as a signifier of trauma. Perhaps temporal distance will make for more redolent associations, and given time his images may appear less totemic and more iconic.Goldblatt’s In the time of AIDS series, for instance, represents a marriage of the wandering visions of life on the road with a pre-determined focus on a contemporary subject. His aspect is distanced and cool, articulating the broad, surface evidence of the omnipresent disease over its personal face. Similar in a sense to Ractliffe’s earlier black and white series, N1:every hundred kilometres (1999), both series evidence the application of a conceptual strategy to contain and structure the enormity of vista while on the road.Both shows are pivotal moments in these artists’ trajectories and having their occurrence near simultaneously was a rare pleasure. The contested view, both formally and conceptually, embodied in Goldblatt’s output, counterpoised by Ractliffe’s insular, yet robust articulations on public and private life, made for an interesting comparison between the ongoing machinations that accompany the life around these images.Michael MacGarry

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