Writing Art History Since 2002

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Franchise | Johannesburg

How do we represent the faces of the people we love when they continue to elude us, to escape our comprehension, to look away or to go amiss? This is the question most pertinently asked and addressed by Missing, an exhibition of animated portraits by 2004 Brett Kebble Art Award winner, Tanya Poole. Sponsored by the Kebble as part of her prize, the exhibition includes Poole’s award-winning entry, also titled Missing, together with subsequent explorations in a similar vein. The works exemplify Poole’s particular form of moving portraiture – an innovative hybrid of oil painting and stop-frame animation – and continue Missing’s thematics of the failure and fragility of human interactions and relations. This is particularly evident in the hauntingly engaging work, Part, which echoes the relational pairing of portraits found in Missing. In the latter, portraits of Poole’s father and daughter face each other, as projections, across a room. In Part, a self-portrait is projected opposite a portrait of Poole’s daughter, both of them lying down as if on the verge of sleep and seemingly watching each other from their respective floating screens. The proximity of father and daughter in Missing, and of self and daughter in Part, is fraught with the tenuous intimacy of familial relations, these being marked as much by misrecognition, separation and longing as they are by a precarious closeness.In Missing, for instance, both father and daughter have their eyes closed for some time; theyseem almost impervious to the presence of each other. Carefully animated shifts in expression – a slight frown, a parting or tensing of the lips, the movement of the eyes behind their eyelids – imply an untold internal narrative. When they do open their eyes and address each other verbally they do so at different times, suggesting a moment of missed communication, which is all the more poignant given their ostensible proximity.Similarly, the portraits of self and daughter gazing at each other so intently in Part seem to share a space of heightened intimacy. Yet subtle visual clues suggest an irreconcilable separateness: they are in different beds or even different rooms. Each portrait becomes, quite literally, a projection of the other’s longing – an imaged ideal which is as much a part of as it is apart from the immediacy of self.Part, in particular, compounds the impossibility of seeing the other completely with the almost antithetical impossibility of letting the other out of one’s sight. In the dynamic interactions of parent and child figured here there is also a sense of inertia, or “lack of volition” to cite Poole’s catalogue interview, which holds the portraits in their impossible proximity. For Poole, it is a “still, gentle moment”, bordering on a non-event. Small, involuntary movements and almost imperceptible shifts in expression signal the weight of what interviewer Clive van den Berg calls “a vast unsaid”.Despite Poole’s translation of portrait painting into a time-based medium, her uncanny animations are thus never too far from their static origins. Indeed, it is arguably the threat of the collapse back into irreparable stasis that lends her works their edginess. For inasmuch as Poole’s portraits are enlivened through animation, these moments of disturbance, often in otherwise immobilised fields of paint, also paradoxically conjure the spectre of the still, unmoving portrait as a death-mask.The space between proximity and distance is thus also the space between tender, if sometimes thwarted, narratives of (mis)communication and the threat of their final cessation – that dreaded end-point when the eyes of the other would cease to look back. It is here, perhaps, that Poole’s works come closest to interrogating portraiture as a mode of representation. If the painted portrait typically aims to arrest the flow of time, to immortalise the sitter, and to guard against loss, then Poole’s quietly animated portraits – which waver so precariously between presence and absence, possession and loss – bespeak the perilous uncertainty that any such project entails.Maureen de Jager is a lecturer in Studio Practice at Rhodes University

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