Roar against silence

The pricing of Joachim Schönfeldt’s beautifully conceived three-headed lioness sculpture, recently exhibited in Johannesburg, offers a rousing critique of the local art market. So why isn’t anyone talking about the issue, asks Rory Bester

The centrepiece of Joachim Schönfeldt’s sculpture Roar is a three-headed lioness that has been faithfully crafted from original drawing research at the British Museum, the Johannesburg Zoo, his local vet, even a taxidermist. The cracks in the imperfect blue gum have been meticulously smoothed over with polyurethane filler, the finally assembled front, back and saddle pieces professionally lacquered by specialists. Exhibited at Johannesburg’s Art on Paper gallery in June, she stood on a chest-high pedestal, towering over any viewer in all her life-size splendour.

Part of the lioness’ impact is her poise. Her two sets of front legs — a manipulation for aesthetic sake, says Schönfeldt — are straight and quite still, invoking the decorative traditions of colonial architecture rather than its contemporary spin-off into the drama of wildlife sculpture. She is made even grander by movement being neither imminent nor possible (Schönfeldt has in his archive a short animation that illustrates how any such attempt would result in the lioness falling flat on every one of her three faces).

The other part of the lioness’ impact is her price: she costs a touch over R1.5m including VAT. For this price, you not only get thelioness, but also the small-scale entourage that makes up Roar: a peafowl and eagle (both of wood, paint and varnish) and a cow (glass fibre, resin and stickers). In the exhibition, this trailing entourage was hidden behind a stained cloth curtain (itself on sale for R364,000). While Schönfeldt was challenged on the price by a lawyer on opening night (the discussion quickly turned a hard comparison of per hour rates for lawyer’s fees and the four years it took to produce Roar), the price tag has attracted relatively little public attention.

This lack of critical notice must be frustrating for Schönfeldt because the pricing is itself a self-conscious intervention into a South African art market that he believes is, for the most, part marshalled below R50,000. According to Schönfeldt, this “price fixing” is driven by a number of factors.

Says the artist: “It’s based on what galleries need to earn in a month to keep going — without considering what an artist might need to earn to survive from one show to the next. And what they think buyers can afford without taking too much of a risk. It makes for a homogenising system in which artists continually produce within this range, and there are few works that break the barrier”.

Not surprisingly Schönfeldt is without a gallerist. Which is surprising in a local environment that’s so strong in its network of galleries, but relatively weak in other modes of display, such as biennales, public art and special events. But I get the sense Schönfeldt prefers to be without a gallerist. He generally produces a body of work and then looks for a venue, rather than more traditionally booking a gallery and producing towards a deadline. It has its downside, though. Schönfeldt’s output is on the low side, and he is relatively absent from the gallery calendar. Before this year’s exhibition at Art on Paper, which isn’t even strictly a solo show since he shares the space with Luan Nel, his last solo show was at the Goodman Gallery in 1997. He was even omitted from 2004’s 10 Years 100 Artists publication. This doesn’t seem like the appropriate trajectory of an artist who loomed large in the early 1990s, and who has steadfastly maintained his intellectual rigour in the interceding years.The Life and Times of Roar, of which the four-piece Roar is a part, is an exhibition that traces some of the contextual complexities that result from what has been described in the above two paragraphs. Roar first left Schönfeldt’s Bag Factory studio for inclusion in Mirror’s Edge, curator Okwui Enwezor’s lens and media rich curatorial reflection on the ways in which the materiality of the object does and doesn’t ‘mirror’ cultural mythologies.

In one sense, Roar’s is a rumination on the sanctioning and un-sanctioning of religious iconography by African Independent Churches, and melds well with the exhibition. But in another sense, it was at odds for its detailed attention to the craft and labour of carving. Nonetheless, Mirror’s Edge gave Roar a wide viewing. Between 1999 and 2001, after opening at BildMuseet, in Sweden, the show travelled to the Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada; Castello di Rivoli in Italy; Tramway in Scotland; and Denmark’s Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall.

When Enwezor first saw Roar in Schönfeldt’s studio, the curator and artist agreed to insure the work for US$200,000, the lowest insured value of any of the works on Mirror’s Edge.As the exhibition progressed, a US museum expressed interest in purchasing the work, but by the time the exhibition tour had come to an end in Denmark, no sale had materialised. Roar was shipped back to South Africa, and Schönfeldt started work on a local tour that was to include extensive supporting research. This too was eventually cancelled. In the time leading up to his exhibition at Art on Paper, a couple of local dealers presented the work to the buying committees of corporate collections. He received counter-offers, which Schönfeldt rejected as too low.

Then came the opportunity to exhibit at Art on Paper, at its original (and much smaller) venue in Melville. Schönfeldt planned to exhibit only a series of prints he had made with the printmaker Mark Atwood. Art on Paper’s move to a new larger venue in Millpark meant that Schönfeldt had to extend his exhibition beyond paper, allowing him to include his now familiar deconstructed oil paintings, a folio of vacuum-formed styrene panels and, most notably, Roar.

The price of Roar was set by Schönfeldt — not Art on Paper. Its value is not without justification, as Schönfeldt points out: “It took me four years to make. There’s the original insurance value. And there’s the exhibition provenance”. To that I would add the fact that Schönfeldt is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (still one of the essential markers of artistic success, no matter how postcolonial we might pretend to be).

So what if this work, which through its pricing offers a comment on the regulation of art’s value, was actually sold for its asking price? “It will open up a new bracket,” says Schönfeldt, “one in which special works will achieve special prices. And by special works, I mean commissioned works, based on a proposal, properexposure and management that puts the final work into public with a sense of occasion, even controversy”.

Some might argue that Schönfeldt is entirely mad to be asking R1.5m. Is he? Not if you compare him with Dylan Lewis — and I’m only doing this to compare apples with things that look like apples — whose life-size wildlife bronzes sell out of Everard Read in Johannesburg for around R325,000. Furthermore, in the global centres of the contemporary art world, Schönfeldt’s asking price is well short of the top dollar prices being paid for works by William Kentridge. Marian Goodman, Kentridge’s New York dealer, is on record as saying his work can fetch as much as US$700,000. But then again, Kentridge is in a league of his own, against which anything in the local art scene cannot honestly be measured.

Schönfeldt is also well short of the auction prices now being paid for South African-born artist, Marlene Dumas. From around US$50,000 at the beginning of the decade, the auction prices of her works steadily rose until the record-breaking US$3.34m paid for The Teacher (Sub A) (1987) at Christie’s in February 2005. It became the highest price paid for a living woman artist at auction. And even if her new work sells out of galleries for one-tenth of her auction prices, her price list is stratospheric — like Kentridge.

In reporting Dumas’ recording breaking sale at Christie’s, the New York Times ascribed the sudden hike to a number of reasons: it was a painting (an “eminently housable” medium); it addressed fashionable cultural questions in a combination of high culture and pop imagery; Dumas is not prolific, producing about 12 oil paintings a year; and she is well represented in museums. It also helped that she was being aggressively chased by Charles Saatchi at auction.

Which brings me back to Schönfeldt. Like Kentridge and Dumas, his attention to aesthetic quality and detail is superb. Like them, his work reflects keen observation of social and political moments in our history and contemporary world. Like them, most of his work is “eminently housable”. Like Dumas at least, he is not prolific. And like both Kentridge and Dumas, he is white (which is more than just coincidence, I think). So why’s he not getting the R1.5m?

Aside from the glitch with regular gallery circulation mentioned earlier, where Kentridge and Dumas use line and narrative to offer a concept that is easily grasped, Schönfeldt offers a conceptual wall that is long, high and topped with an electricity of tetchiness. He is hard to access. And one-on-ones with the artist don’t always make getting to the other side of the wall any easier. Schönfeldt, in short, is not one for palatable solutions delivered in cute bites and he resists easy commodification.

Whether his drift from the early 1990s limelight to his present position of relative obscurity was his own orchestration is, of course, a moot topic. Possibly, it is a reflection on the inability of the media to engage his output, and the local art market’s demand for neatly packaged, keenly priced art commodities. The fact, though, that Roar is still in the hands of the artist highlights an interesting question: Does Schönfeldt need to sell Roar to make his overriding point?