Writing Art History Since 2002

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Everard Read Gallery Johannesburg

In one of the most famous portraits of English literature, Dorian Gray’s painterly likeness became an alchemical and potent object. The charged relationship between artist and sitter envisaged in this literary portrait highlighted some of the central themes of the painterly genre, notions of likeness, time, beauty and death. Joni Brenner’s investigation of portraiture in her aptly titled exhibition Wrest redefines, and grapples with, the genre’s conflicting themes in a similarly alchemical display. The artist in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) describes his subject as “a suggestion” who is found “in the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours”. Using the head as her departure, which is a loaded psychological and physiological corporeal aspect, Brenner engages with, yet moves beyond, the simply aesthetic preoccupations of the decadent artist. The cerebral nature of Brenner’s abstracted sculptural paintings have a dynamic and suggestive intensity, out of the laboured and textural surfaces emerge flickering forms – an ear, a contorted mouth, a wrinkled brow. The built-up surfaces deny the effacing and objectifying quality portraits are prone to assume and complicate simple dynamics between artist and sitter. In viewing the works one gets a sense of an emotional and sensory character map rather than a physical likeness. These forms are mounted on a variety of deliberately coloured plinths or mounts that are integral to the works themselves and serve to heighten their tactility. The mounts also draw attention to modes of display in an ideological critique of the ‘transparency’ of labeling in museum culture. Brenner’s sophisticated visual vocabulary and manipulation of space in her large-scale installation of sculptural heads engages the potential inventive aspects of a fertile space that has not been utilised in the more conservative displays previously shown at this venue.

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