Whatiftheworld recently embarked on a fresh chapter of life in its inviting new premises housed over two floors of the historical Woodstock synagogue buildings on the corner of Argyle Street and Albert Road. Nothing could have been more apt for this embarkation than Renée Holleman’s solo show, A Novel in Parts, which turned around the voyage of a mysterious schooner in an imaginative variety of narrative-triggering ways, shapes and forms.
In one work, a miniature wooden vessel (adapted and constructed by Holleman from a model boat-building kit) held aloft in the ether, casts shifting shadows against the walls of the gallery, like a maritime shadow show at a Victorian fair. The sailing ship is also featured in a series of cryptic haiku-like prose poems, which were published amidst advertisements in the classifieds section of the Daily Post between July and August 2011. These oblique and enticing word constructions are rendered all the more Romantic for their exquisite alienation – so fey and introspective in tone against the quotidian announcements and hyperbolic neighbourhood reports that comprise the newspaper’s daily content. The sense of cultural displacement is poignantly acute and humorous all at once. Yet, far from being snootily above the populism of the tabloids, the content of the exhibition echoes the hyberbole of tabloid narratives and whodunnits. In one of the most covetable series on the show – three large and painstakingly detailed drawings blindly traced through inky blue carbon paper – Holleman depicts the night streets of Woodstock, complete with railway lines, mechanical chop shops and industrial warehouses all illuminated by the glow of street lights. But in a flight of (not entirely unfounded) fancy, the mystery schooner appears again, close-hauled to the wind, as it charts its magical way down Albert Road. At first it might seem like some whimsical fabulation from a magic realist novel, but it is also an archival overlay – a visual conjuring of how Woodstock might actually once have looked combined with a portrayal of what the district looks like today. The tracing paper medium is something of a visual pun, as the “moment of sighting” depicted in these drawings is an idea that is replicated and threaded through the exhibition as a whole (in a multiplicity of ways not fully described here).In an associated palimpsest work, layered maps of the area from different moments in history collapse the illusion of linear time to illustrate where the actual shoreline ran. “There are old photographs of suburban families having a lovely day out on Woodstock beach. It was a beautiful big beach with people having picnics and playing ball and going for walks … Imagining Woodstock with a beach in the present became a kind of fantasy for me,” says Holleman. “Within the overriding narratives of industrialisation and the current gentrification of the area (of which the gallery is a part), I wanted to open up a space which allowed for a more imaginative kind of relationship with the Woodstock environment.”The cues and motifs that run through the show function similarly to the seductive elements in a postmodern fable by Borges, or the positive shapes in a game of join the dots that generate an inexplicable desire to fill up the negative gaps and the spaces in between. The show following Hollemans picked up on the idea of the gaps and spaces between words and ideas, letters and lines on the page. In her immaculately resolved solo at whatiftheworld, Maja Marx took her exploration of the relationship between text and landscape to new levels. An extraordinary unity of effect ran through her show, which encompassed oil paintings, custom-printed blankets, monotype prints and finely stitched drawings. Entitled Fold, the exhibition grappled with the sensual nuances of the disrupted surface, ranging from paper to cloth to the earth itself. Each work is a study in the unique ways in which an object gives in to itself – is bent, crumpled, crushed or folded.”Inspired by the Renaissance convention of the cartellino, (Italian for ‘little paper’), a small creased or folded piece of paper bearing an inscription that is painted to appear like a real piece of paper that looks as if it has been pasted on the surface of the painting itself, Marx’s paintings exaggerate this subtle illusionism,” reads the exhibition text.The words on a page are broken down by the convolutions of the surface, diverting attention away from the meanings that inhabit language and toward the qualities of the paper itself and the abstract forms of typography. The reduced palette and brut letter shapes of Marx’s paintings and prints recall the functionalism of Bauhaus and the graphic minimalism of Russian constructivist propaganda, but the absorbing sensuality of her textures (shimmering oils, Belgian linen, rabbit skin glue) softly implodes one’s perception of the flat surface. In one Escher-like instance after another, measurable flatness is rendered mythological by the deft fiction of dimension. In each instance the surface inscriptions of type or line collapse in unique ways, conjured by substances and forms, which are not the thing itself, but speak of it so convincingly it almost hurts.Alexandra Dodd is a PhD fellow in English Literature with the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at UCT.