Writing Art History Since 2002

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Erdmann Contemporary Cape Town

Walking into Nicola Grobler’s latest exhibition, 4 Auto-Stroke, one is immediately struck by its centrepiece, a work titled Slick. It is a dark, oily sculpture of a wave (reminiscent of Japanese artist Kutsushika Hokusai’s famous prints of waves), and what seem to be oil marks on the floor. From this piece, and its relation to other works, including the suspended front and side windows of a car, photographs of cars on the wall, and toy cars vibrating on the floor, one can easily see that the exhibition is primarily concerned with car culture, especially how we relate to and invest in cars, and what this reveals about us.In her artist’s statement (and in her walkabout), Grobler explains that the exhibition came about by listening to the car noises in her neighbourhood and her subsequent musing about how these noises shift and change depending on the time of day, and day of the week. She remarks how one can read these noises, and in so doing, come to understand much about their owners. This is, she imagines, in a way similar to how our forbears must have read the sounds of songbirds and the behaviour of other animals, to gauge their fortune from the changes in the weather.However, for Grobler, there is something sinister to be found in such a reading. Even though the exhibition features some brightly coloured images, toys and even hints at illicit sex in cars, this is not a light-hearted show at its core. In contrast to these references to popular culture, we also find broken glass from windscreens, dark oil and flashing, disembodied lights, which suggests that a more cynical tone underlies her work. Perhaps most sinister are the shapes configured in the oil spills on the floor, and consequently, through these shapes, Slick provides a useful key to the core concern of the show. The loose, frantic shapes of the oil, swirl around the wave, making it appear as though a fast car had just sped away leaving behind this mess. However, Grobler reveals that these shapes were traced from watercolours she had made of crows. Read in conjunction with the crows, harbingers of bad tidings, the wave sculpture may be read as signifying the arrival of some disaster: an oily tsunami, if you like.In order to find clues as to the nature of the disaster, it is useful to look at the series of retouched photographs of SUV’s. In this series, Grobler presents images of popular 4×4 vehicles. The scourge of urban roads, these vehicles are mostly bought to signify wealth, rather than being used for actual off-road traversing. In this way, Grobler emphasises our especially South African fixation with surface. This is also evident in I, a work that consists of a large-scale drawing of a necklace, made with rubber and broken glass. The pendant to the necklace is a LED display, on which a series of names from personalised number plates to be found on cars from Cape Town are flashed. Among these, I noticed, was “4U2NV”. Another poignant comment can be found in Escort, a suspended arrangement of the windscreen and six side windows of a Ford Escort. Sandblasted onto these windows are obscured scenes from films in which people are having sex in cars. The work evokes the strange portable privacy that a car embodies. Through its title, the work also references notions of brand name, companionship and sex for sale.Grobler seizes on some seemingly banal practices in relation to cars, in order to make shrewd observations and pointed comments regarding the vacant nature of a culture that remains stuck on the surface of things, endlessly revolving in cycles of materialism and consumption.

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