Sanell Aggenbach I Bell-Roberts Gallery I Cape Town
Fool’s Gold takes as its starting point early western explorers and the attendant notions of perilous travel and discovery, inspired partly by the artist’s visit to the National Maritime Museum in Paris. Sanell Aggenbach uses her familiar thematic oar of heritage to propel a body of work that strikes a playful balance between fantasy and reality. It gently casts aspersions on officially sanctioned versions of events and invokes imagination to breach the gaps. The only tangible artefacts left in its wake undermine their own authority with an ambiguous presence.This is most powerfully evident in Passive/ Aggressive and Ghost, in which Aggenbach announces a confident return to painting. These individually shaped canvases each depict a single piece of porcelain crockery and are balanced carefully one beside the other in rows of consecutive shelves. They speak of fragile prized heirlooms, emphasised by the mantelpiece arrangement, while the subdued tones and regular forms simultaneously speak of more generic treasures.These trompe l’oeil items could be relics brought back from some conquered shore or conversely reminders of a society left behind in a quest for adventure. The viewer is implicated in the ideology behind such imperialist aspirations; we are aware of the visual deception while simultaneously seduced by the smooth painterly surface and familiar shapes. The porcelain reference is extended by the flotilla of small ceramic origami-style ships placed neatly in a wooden cabinet of boastful treasure called Souvenirs. Scylla & Charybdis, a diptych of circular canvases that mimic portholes, continue a smart and subtle critique that exaggerates myth to reveal the apparatus of ideological constructs.Beyond these framing devices lie indistinct views – the one more optimistic, the other foreboding. The title refers to the names of a sea monster and whirlpool in Greek mythology – two dangers such that avoidance of one increases the risk from the other. The circular format is repeated in Port. Its round wooden frame recalls Aggenbach’s earlier explorations with tapestry.Sea serpents also populate Parallel Worlds where sailor’s lore becomes archival fact in a series of acrylic and ink prints on canvas. Aggenbach has used the format of an old-fashioned scroll to depict sailing ships navigating tempestuous seas. Schism, the most effective in this series, shows Hokusai’s famous wave looming over a ship. In Travelogue, a notion of mapping suggested by the scrolls recurs: nautical images are superimposed like a tattoo on the artist’s naked torso. Aggenbach thereby includes reference to herself in any critique.She also speaks more broadly to contemporaries attracted to Europe’s bright lights with North by Northwest (the axis towards Europe). This series of laminated wooden books is bent to resemble birds in flight. It is a witty take on the 1970s fad of flying geese on kitchen walls and reflects Aggenbach’s interest in nostalgia. What tomes are migrating and where is uncertain. But this playful analogy for the transfer of knowledge is one of the strongest works on show. Fool’s Gold is a fresh and visually appealing exhibition in which familiar thematic threads in Aggenbach’s work manifest in new, interesting and humorous ways. It holds together well as a body of work, bonded both visually with its muted hues and conceptually through a cohesive framework.