Writing Art History Since 2002

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Monument gallery | Grahamstown

“/cloud/,” writes art theorist Hubert Damisch, “may … be called upon to perform a function that may be sometimes integrating, sometimes disintegrating … it causes perturbations.”Sixteen images of clouds, flushed to varying degrees by a setting sun, featured in Scapegoat, the main installation of A Premonition of War, Wim Botha’s Standard Bank Young Artist’s Award exhibition. The images – photographs turned into picture puzzles enclosed in tarnished gilt baroque frames – formed a faceted arc behind the suspended figure of a satyr-Christ. On the one hand, the tight interlocking of the puzzle pieces created a sense of flawless integration; on the other, the separative (re)arrangement of the pictures drew attention to art’s capacity to fragment narratives and perturb conventions of display and perception.Faced with a crucified anthracite satyr, viewers might have overlooked the assault launched by the clouds on their familiar sign systems. Yet the linocut series Blastwave, in which a Pierneef-style landscape with a central tree is denuded by the shockwave of an atomic bomb, highlighted this intrusive function. In the work convention is literally blasted by the winds of change, and as the series progresses the large cloud behind the tree migrates from the background to the foreground, to the point where it wraps itself around the ruined tree, heralding the possibility of a hybrid resurrection.Botha’s interest in subversion and inversion became patent in his two small bronzes, Bacchus and Satyr and Abraham and Isaac. These figures, which strongly recall Quattrocento artists like Antonio Pollaiuolo, and which make us abundantly aware of the quotational aspect of Botha’s work, reverse their historical roles. A well-endowed satyr has torn off the right arm of his supposed overlord, Bacchus, and beats him with it, while in the other bronze an Isaac as pre-pubescent as Donatello’s David has seized his Goliath-like father by the eyes and is poised to slit the old man’s throat with a curved blade.Bronze is a precious metal associated with ‘high art’ sculpture. In these works what taints, stains – in effect, clouds – its polished surface are the narratives returned in a distorted, anamorphic perspective. If the roles of gods and historical figures can be so easily denatured and reversed, one is left asking what exactly holds our shared symbolic codes together? Other elements added to the sense of topsy-turviness, from the mirror reversal and crude material of Botha’s Mieliepap Pietà (based on Michelangelo’s original) to the shadows that were carefully contrived to duplicate on the gallery walls both the objects and the foregrounded wires and suspension mechanisms used to secure the pieces.A Premonition of War, as mounted during the National Arts Festival, read as a somewhat sparse show. However, the reconfiguration of pieces previously exhibited in different ways drew attention to the artifice involved in the assembly and display of artworks, and thereby managed to cloud both the paucity of works and the ill-suited gallery space.Michael Herbst

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