Writing Art History Since 2002

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Good arts writing not only shapes your opinion of an artist but also tends to delimit your experience of individual artworks – especially if you read about a collection or exhibition before seeing it for yourself, up close and in person.

The more eloquent or persuasive the ekphrasis, the less confident you are able to feel that your response to the work is, in fact, “your” response. So it was perhaps an error on my part to begin my encounter with Richard Penn’s Horizon by reading “Finding Life”, the short but insightful essay by Anthea Buys included in the brochure accompanying the exhibition. Buys writes of “the paradoxical suggestion of being at once very close to, and very far from, the indefinable forms that populate the works,” affirming that “one becomes lost in pictorial scale.” Indeed, as these forms are produced (or reproduced) on a two-dimensional plane, they appear simultaneously to be held in three-dimensional suspension. What, the viewer is left wondering, is the element being suggested by the surface of the paper? Is it water or some other fluid in the body? Is it the “vacuum” of deep space? In other words, are these tiny entities being magnified, or are they vast objects being viewed from far away? It is tempting to invoke quantum physics in arguing that they can be both at the same time, but this is probably specious science; rather, they are mutually subsistent on a metaphorical (or is it allegorical?) level. Collapsing the cognitive distance – that is, our perception of distance – between the telescopic and the microscopic has an invigorating effect, asking us to reconcile the cosmic and the visceral. In this exhibition, the linocut Core (2012) most explicitly signals this collapse: a putative Milky Way spreads across the centre of our vision, but panels to the right seem to depict tissue or liquid cells viewed on a slide.

Read more in the current issue of Art South Africa magazine (10.4), in stores now.

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