Writing Art History Since 2002

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Kim Berman I Art on Paper I Johannesburg

Dipping into the wealth of past writing about artist Kim Berman one uncovers the repetitive use of the following remark: “My artwork, over the past few years has explored fire as a metaphor for the South African process of transformation and the purging of the landscape to make way for new growth.” In her recent solo exhibition, Berman revisited this statement of intent, returning too to her preferred genre, landscape.The exhibition comprised two broad series of works. Alongside images of burning and smouldering mine dumps Berman introduced a new trope to her charged and symbolic grammar: water. While fire has been an enduring visual element in Berman’s work for over a decade, its real life effects only recently impacted upon the artist’s life. In 2003 a fire ravaged the Artists Proof Studio, the Newtown studio Berman co-founded with artist Nhlanhla Xaba. He perished in the fire.Berman’s series of etchings, monotypes and mono-prints depicting Johannesburg’s mine dumps are the first works to have emerged after this tragedy – they were in fact produced using plates extricated from the rubble of the gutted studio. The burn marks on the plates contribute to a compelling layering; fire is not only a key theme of this work but also proved to be an integral – and very tragic element – of the process.Unlike the aggressive fires of her earlier works the flames appearing in this new work have for the most part burnt themselves to ash. However, the wasted, smouldering earth that remains offers a compelling reminder of what has passed – and what still lies ahead. By contrast, the series of prints depicting suburban ponds and streams is marked by a deceptive calm. The water scenes are the model of beauty and serenity.But it is stagnant water we are looking at, images of sludge and slime where the stink of putrid water predominates. Rubbish decays on the water’s surface, and polluted waste runs into it from sewage pipes. Berman does not entirely forsake her interest in fire in this new series, and repeatedly introduces flame red blossoms to her scenes. The blossoms float like memorial red ribbons on the water’s surface.Although devoid of human figures, Berman’s landscapes include numerous signifiers of human presence, ranging from the leftover detritus of the mining industry to pylons and barbed wire. These inanimate objects eloquently comment on the attitudes and habits of the people inhabiting the landscapes. Disturbing and emotionally wrenching, Berman’s work nonetheless holds a compelling beauty. It redeems her harrowing vision.

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