Writing Art History Since 2002

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An artist has reached maturity when his new work can no longer be judged by a singular exhibition, but instead must be seen in relation to the rest of his oeuvre. This makes artistic life a lot easier; you can reflect on your own work, gradually adding little pieces to that great proverbial Sagrada Familia, which will never be finished but has increasingly discernible outlines and layers. It offers extra scope and possibilities. You can get away with experiments and idiosyncrasies.

Neil Young faithfuls, for instance, did buy his odd electronic album Trans simply because it was Neil Young and it added a chapter to the musician’s grand narrative. Another example is Jonathan Frantzen whose The Corrections was a widely acclaimed bestseller. Next he wrote the opening chapters of the follow-up, Freedom in an unusual, unappealing style that no debutant would have been allowed to get away with. But it worked and Freedom was hailed as “the Great American Novel”. For collectors it also has its perks: you can safely buy “a Kentridge” that consists of two bland photocopies with an authentic signature, simply because it’s “a Kentridge”. Wayne Barker reached that stature of mature artist after his Super Boring mid-career exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery last year. His most recent work, largely conceived during a stay in Berlin and recently exhibited as part of the group exhibition Dimension at Fried Contemporary in Pretoria, underlines this newfound status: this is work that a beginning artist would struggle to find a gallery for. This was a show without a core, although it seemed to change a couple of times while it was on. When I was there, the beaded work, which looked promising in the catalogue, like computer drawings with beads, had been removed and some oil paintings were still waiting to dry. What remained were three series of mixed media on A4, mainly water colour, sometimes mixed with inkblots, and invariably depicting females. Next there was a version of Barker’s trademark hat, bronzed and painted off-white with splashes of yellow, red, blue and black. There was a 3D piece he had done in collaboration with Don Searle, with a skull and a Panama hat. And finally there were two 3D audio-visual installations, featuring striking girls in various states of undress, like a toned down version of Richard Kern’s famed New York Girls. Meanwhile Patti Smith’s Gloria was looped on the hifi – filling the space with the endless mantra, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”So as a single exhibition it was somewhat shambolic. Those not familiar with Barker’s work must have shaken their heads and moved to the other rooms to check out the more dramatic efforts of Maria van Rooyen and Angus Taylor. But as part of Barker’s oeuvre it was fascinating. Gone is Barker’s political engagement, gone is the scandal, and gone is most of his maverick, mad humour. There are still references to other artists, notably Toulouse-Lautrec (the obsession with prostitutes), Damien Hirst (the recurring skull) and the aforementioned Richard Kern (the erotic photography). The key to Barker’s latest round of work turned out to be a painting/drawing on a tattered piece of A4 paper that wasn’t exhibited but which the gallery assistant kindly showed me. It’s a mess of potato shaped outlines with lots of blue and vague contours of a head. Mostly it’s messy, scarily so. Barker apparently drew this as a reaction to the hurt that his muse/lover Mannini left him with. In all her topless glory Mannini also featured in visual installations and on a print of one of the stills, looking sadly to the floor, against a background of a Barker painting with the word “Ubuntu”. He carried this A4 with the potato face with him wherever he went, hence its worn-out scruffiness. Combined with the various sets of A4s at Fried Contemporary this unexhibited painting hints at another level of maturity. Next year Barker will turn fifty, the nadir of middle age. He has lived life to the hilt, embodying that looped Patti Smith phrase about Jesus dying for someone else’s sins. Barker has always displayed a need for confrontation and provocation, especially with the pretentious and elite art world. Although it is hard to find a linear narrative in his work, one could say that it has been defined by a kicking against the pricks, whether it’s family (his father was an SADF officer and a staunch Nationalist), culture czars or fellow artists and critics. Like his old buddy Karl Gietl, Barker has searched for beauty in the city’s underbelly, in sleazy bars, inhabited by tsotsis, destitute jazz cats and various kinds of ladies of the night.The new work focuses almost singularly on these women: a Berlin bar lady, dancing nudes, a German prostitute, the lover who spurned him. Every now and then there are incoherent attempts to communicate with the viewer, when words are added to the picture. But otherwise the focus is exclusively on the artist, his own presence and his questioning of ageing, eroticism and melancholy. Most evocative is the series of watercolours “Dance of Life”, seven images of naked women, with an ominous shadow hovering in the background, almost swallowing a dancing figure in which we recognise a behatted Barker. As with Kern, it is the object that is always in charge. It is the multiple “she” who feeds the fantasies of the artist – his obsessions, his pain, his rage, his lust – and ultimately points at mortality. And all of this is captured in the mess of the “Potato head” drawing not on the exhibition. In the artist’s statement Barker says he worked in Berlin’s Potsdammer Strasse, where “George Gross [sic] had made many of his paintings and drawings.” Barker’s reference to George Grosz is telling. It is the Berlin of the 1920s that Barker has inhabited most of his artist life: the interbellum period that gave us Dada, assemblage, Futurism, Surrealism and readymades. But the roaring twenties turned into the Great Depression. The admired Grosz became more politically engaged as Germany’s economic meltdown fed into the rise of the Nazis. If that endlessly looped, obsessive Patti Smith song is anything to go by, he won’t give up. Not just yet: ‘People say “beware!”/ But I don’t care/ The words are just rules and regulations to me, me.’Fred de Vries is affiliated to the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) and is working on a biography of Beat poet Sinclair Beiles.

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