Writing Art History Since 2002

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Michael Croeser is a Durban-based draughtsman known for his ambitious charcoal drawings. His works take months to create, writes Gideon Unkeless, and even longer to sell.

Michael Croeser, Untitled, 2010, charcoal on paper DURBAN, Dec. 21, 2010 – Whenever Brenton Maart, the former director of the KZNSAGallery, went away on business he left Ms. Spider, his beloved gray cat,behind. Besides meals, Maart insisted that Ms. Spider receive an hour of humanattention each day. With burglaries rife in Durban, it paid Maart to book ahouse sitter, which usually ended up being Michael Croeser, a 34-year-old draughtsmanknown for his ambitious charcoal drawings. In return, Maart stocked the fridgetill bursting, and left money for Croeser’s and Ms. Spider’s maintenance.Croeser has wavy brown hair and a bird-like bobble head thatsits atop his waif-like frame. Wearing Vans and white jeans set off by his trimred beard, Croeser looks like a surf version of Willem Dafoe. He lives in15-meter cement room at the back of big house in Glenwood. The cramped spacehas an oven, small fridge, futon and a makeshift shelving unit filled withbooks, CDs, DVDs and vinyl records.There is a compelling duality to Croeser, who is slack inaspects of his personal life and obsessive in his art and about his socialideals. At the pace of one completed piece every eight months to a year,Croeser achieves superior craftsmanship, yet his limited production andunvarying aesthetic content make it difficult to place and promote his art.In contrast to his disciplined artwork, Croeser the everydayman is somewhat offbeat, at least by South African standards. His modest artsales keep him on a budget, but he makes rent by designing CD covers and housesitting for friends. Without a car, Croeser often walks long distances acrosstown to visit the gallery and see friends. When he does have money, Croeserspends it on movies and music – it’s not surprising to find traces of Tarkovsky,Teshigahara, and Henryk Gorecki in his work.The first time I met Croeser was in a friend’s car. Croeser,who regularly shows at the KZNSA Gallery, had just had his worked shown at theJoburg Art Fair. It did not sell well. “I reckon it’s a good sign the publicdoesn’t like my work,” he said. “People mostly like crap.”The South African art market is an odd place. Gruesomelycoloured paintings of tribal scenes and safari animals always sell,domestically as well as to tourists. The contemporary art scene is dominated byyoung men and women whose output, generally, is marked by political didactics;borrowings from New York and Berlin are commonplace. There’s a good reason forthis latter point. South Africa’s advanced telecommunications industry – thebest in Africa – streams trends from western media outlets, constantly andinstantaneously, often making it hard for homegrown cultural ideas and practicesto flourish.In this climate, Croeser’s work, which might be described asa snapshot of the stillborn dream of a hoped-for South Africa, struggles tofind a nesting place. His odd, politically incorrect, unpretentious andirreverent ideas about tourism, race, the passage of time, pestilence, film,responsibility and memory place him in the company of Diane Victor, Steven Cohenand Peter van Heerden.One of Croeser’s drawings, done with pencil in a fuzzy-noirglass wash, depicts an astronaut’s boot-print with sharks, toy cowboys and atelephone swirling in the shadows. Another depicts a woman’s hand spraying bugrepellent on a model South African Airways plane. In a sense, the country’scitizens are still getting acquainted. Stereotypes about race, particularlyamongst whites, remain commonplace. Reading these explanations into Croeser’sairplane and spray-paint drawing may be excessive, but the audacious energy inthe drawing inspires nonetheless.To begin a project, Croeser spends hours constructing smalldiorama-like sets that enable him to refine his vision by adding and removingvarious elements from the composite scene. One afternoon I watched Croesergently scoop live ants into a casserole dish, which also contained pyramids ofglass shards propped up at intentional angles. In five rolls of film, he hopedto get at least one shot of a singular ant whose body would be refracted manytimes over in different sizes and densities.Michael Croeser, Economically Viable Chinese Birth Death Paradox, 2000, charcoal on paper, 170 x 82cm For a recent artwork Croeser supervised his friends as theysmoked cigarettes down to prearranged lengths andthen stabbed them into a small dish of sand, each smoker in his or her ownstyle. The jumbo-sized cigarette butts in the resultant drawing resemblelong-lapsed monuments.Scale is key to Croeser’s process. Once a scene is set, he useshis macro lens to get an image he likes. He then makes a reference print. Withonly pencils, erasers, magnifying glasses, and strips of paper instead ofrulers to take measurements, he copies the postcard-sized image onto a largesheet of Fabriano paper and enlarges the original image many times. Monthslater, Croeser will have a hyper-detailed hand-drawn image of a still life thatpresents an intriguing meditation on time and reality.His surreal drawings are at once full of life and curiously hollow,even ancient looking. The stark black and white colour scheme, which looked sovivid at first glance, seems to decay – perhaps perpetually – as you stare atthe piece and, when you step in for a closer look, you think you can just aboutsee a single shard of charcoal detaching itself from the paper.The disintegration embedded in Croeser’s art turns hisintricate drawings into husks or relics of themselves. Set in a white frame anddisplayed behind a thin sheet of glass, the image almost transmogrifies into anartefact from an odd past. To spend a moment with one of Croeser’s drawings isto become slightly more of the passing of time, a sensation booth soothing and anxious,like watching sand stream through an hourglass.Gideon Unkeless is a freelance writerbased in New York and a former visiting Fulbright scholar to South AfricaMichael Croeser Gideon Unkeless’ interview with Michael Croeser on the KZNSA website.

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