Norman Catherine

Goodman Gallery | Johannesburg

Appropriately titled Dualities, this exhibit presents a far more satisfying body of work than Norman Catherine’s oeuvre on display during his travelling retrospective Now and Then which toured galleries this year. While his artworks continue to be marked by a bold and colourful palette and primordial imagery that sees men and beasts amalgamate and collide, this exhibit is more coherent, leaving one with a stronger sense of Catherine’s conception of ‘the self’ or multiplicity thereof.The cartoon-like characters that colonise Catherine’s canvases reveal men – he favours male subjects – at odds with themselves. Vengeance is Mine (2005) is a prime example of this reoccurring motif. In one hand a masked man holds a bloodied knife. A wound on his shoulder makes it clear that he is retaliating against himself. A small head that rests on his shoulder articulates the rift or multiplicity of his identity. This knife-wielding character, however, is not only unaware of his ‘other self’ but his blunder. Despite his enemy being an aspect of himself, he dons a mask so as to conceal his identity. He does, however, pay a high price for his ignorance; he harms himself. The large bone which he holds in his other hand signifies that his act of revenge or self-destruction is incomplete. Bent on seeking retribution he is just beginning to wage a violent campaign against himself. In this context Catherine has cunningly subverted the adage “vengeance is mine”; this act of revenge belongs to the avenger in more ways than one.No matter how tightly Catherine’s male subjects strap themselves into body-hugging suits, inferring their compliance with social convention, they are unable to disguise or keep contradictory aspects of themselves under wraps. Like the persistent and pervasive presence of the boil that plagued Richard E Grant’s character in How to get Ahead in Advertising (1989), small heads grow out of Catherine’s protagonists’ necks, arms and shoulders, threatening and competing for survival. Most of Catherine’s subjects are unable to reconcile or accept the existence of divergent aspects of themselves. Fear, horror and revulsion characterises a two-headed man’s dealings with himself in Chinwag (2006). However, despite the subject’s abhorrence and desire to distance himself from his other self, there is no escape; wherever he runs the other head will follow – they are, after all, attached to the same body.This theme is further realised through a darker collection of artworks, which sees deviant aspects of the self transmogrified into a wolf. Here too Catherine’s subjects are unable to break away from less desirable elements of their psyche. Significantly the wolf only makes an appearance when the subject is alone and relishing intimate moments in his own company; such as taking a bath or curling up in bed to sleep – inferring that facades cannot be maintained in privacy.Incubus (2006), Bedfellows (2006) and Partnership (2006) are all striking images that present the interaction between men and their darker, hidden selves as embodied by the wolf. Partnership is particularly poignant. Scratches and deep abrasions are scored onto the bath in which a man and the wolf share, denoting habitual fighting. Although he is well aware of the wolf’s presence, the man wears an eye-mask, preferring to live in denial. Not only does he deny the wolf’s existence but the mangled towel which has obviously been repaired countless times suggests that the man refuses to admit that a struggle has ever taken place. The wolf waits quietly at the other end of the bath. Eventually his ‘prey’ will be forced to take off the blindfold and another battle will ensue.
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