New painting | Investment intelligence
Eminently collectable, painting is a hotly evolving medium that is constantly making itself new.
As Hanya Yanagihara, in her astonishing masterwork A Little Life, writes: ‘His was the painting he was working on now and for it he had broken form and changed to a forty-inch-square canvas.’ One of her central characters is a young painter called JB, who shares a studio space in an old bottle factory in Long Island City (that could be Fordsburg, Woodstock or Maitland) with three other emerging artists. ‘He had experimented for days to get right the precise shade of tricky, serpenty green for Jude’s irises and had redone the colours of his hair again and again before he was satisfied,’ she pens. ‘It was a great painting and he knew it, knew it absolutely the way you sometimes did and he had no intention of ever showing it to Jude until it was hanging on a gallery wall somewhere. To him it expressed everything about what he hoped this series would be: it was a love letter, it was documentation, it was a saga, it was his. When he worked on his painting, he felt sometimes as if he were flying, as if the world of galleries and parties and other artists and ambitions had shrunk to a pinpoint beneath him, something so small he could kick it away from himself like a soccer ball, watch it spin off into some distant orbit that had nothing to do with him. It was almost six. The light would change soon. For now, the space was still quiet around him, although distantly, he could hear the train rumbling by on its tracks. Before him, his canvas waited. And so he picked up his brush and began.’
In this scene, Yanagihara captures something of the intensely personal, alchemical pull a painting can have on an artist. It’s a strange visceral spell that is often transferred to the owners, who choose to live their lives in relation to the shifting codes locked into particular works. Fizzily sardonic or properly epic, there’s a certain timelessness about paintings. They endure. And yet, as Yanagihara so perfectly captures, the medium is also locked into fraught contemporary contestation with itself – and the pressure is on for painters who live consciously in the present, accountable to their publics – to push the form forward, shake it up, speak back to the ancient and immediate past out of which the medium has emerged. In this way, out of this internalised conceptual heat, painting is made new and vital.
With the Joburg Art Fair (9 to 11 September 2016) now jostling with the Cape Town Art Fair (17 to 19 February 2017), Turbine Art Fair (13 to 16 July 2017) and That Art Fair (next year’s dates to be confirmed), the gallery scene is exploding across two major art cities nationally. The galleries themselves are increasingly keyed into transnational flows of contemporary practice across the African continent and beyond. And, with the Heatherwick Studio-designed Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa about to transform the contemporary art world in 2017, there is no shortage of demand for new painting in South Africa. There’s a hunger for works that investigate the materiality of painting, while at the same time undoing habitual responses to expected or traditional subject matters.
‘Painting is enjoying a remarkable creative renaissance in the 21st century,’ notes Kurt Beer, author of Thames & Hudson’s 100 Painters of Tomorrow. ‘Many of the world’s leading artists now work in the most enduring and seductive of media … Their work spans an extraordinary range of styles and techniques, from abstraction to figuration, minimalism to magical realism and straight oil-on-canvas to mixed-media and installation-based painting.’ Multimedia paintings, exploring ideas about the addition and removal of materials, are made with everything from acrylic to enamel, alcohol to salt-eroded swathes of colour. I am thinking here of Ground, Alexandra Karakashian’s current solo at SMAC Gallery in which she ‘engages with concepts and materials that are regarded as contentious within the various fragile relationships between humans and land (or environment), and prompts a consideration of the shifting ways in which landscape can be perceived in the context of ongoing social, political and ecological discourses’.
Internationally, a trend toward new abstraction in painting is on the rise, with a proliferation of abstract compositions that play with form, material and colour in ways that are wilfully offhand, sketchy or provisional. Zander Blom’s exuberantly anti-didactic compositions (for which he was awarded the Jean-François Prat Prize in 2014 and exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo) and Dorothee Kreutzfeldt’s 2015 solo exhibition, At Present, at Blank Projects in Cape Town spring to mind here.
The new mode of abstract painting is deconstructed, reinvented, playful and often quite casual – particularly in the United States, where ‘The New Casualists’ seem to be in ascendance. ‘[They] take a meta approach that refers not just to earlier art historical styles, but back to the process of painting itself,’ writes Sharon L Butler in The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics and Culture. ‘These self-amused but not unserious painters have abandoned the rigorously structured propositions and serial strategies of previous generations in favour of playful, unpredictable encounters.’
Strong elements of new abstraction can be detected on canvases coming out of local studios, but here in South Africa, where our history is urgent and our politics perennially personal, the medium seems distinctively entwined with the message. Although some artists are fully exploring the open proposition in contemporary abstraction, more often figurative content persists – whether boldly and plainly foregrounded (Ndikhumbule Ngqinambi, Raél Jero Salley), brought to the sculptural plasticity of the surface and combined with other objects, patterns, materials (Georgina Gratrix, Portia Zvavahera) or melting away into a painterly environment of drips, daubs, splatters and strokes (Sarah Biggs).
Although not political in any obvious sense, the wildly amusing and formally louche canvases of Michael Taylor are oddly liberating and charged with fierce wit. His unfettered gouache, ink and acrylic brushstrokes and zany tropical hues are deliciously upbeat in what can at times be an oppressive climate of counter-revolutionary stoicism, homophobia and unimaginative nation building. Mzansi – we are not necessarily one! Taylor’s paintings, which were exhibited at the M Contemporary gallery in Sydney in May this year, are populated by a splendidand burlesque cast of dandies caught up in miscellaneous parlour antics and an endless stream of gin and tonics on tropical verandas, as if he were channelling Oscar Wilde’s fin de siècle fervour a misplaced century and a bit down the line.
Tropical lushness, deliciously off-key colours and bold brushstrokes are also a feature of Mia Chaplin’s paintings. Although Chaplin paints in oils, the expressive energy of her thick brushstrokes are recorded in the materiality of her surfaces.
There is another sense in which South African painting seems to both conform to and depart from a broader contemporary trend – and that is in relation to time, history and memory. A key trend in contemporary painting is toward ‘a-temporality’ – a phenomenon in culture first identified by the science fiction writer William Gibson. He used the term to describe a cultural product of our moment that paradoxically doesn’t represent, through style, content or medium, the time from which it comes. In 2014/15, the Museum in Modern Art in New York City mounted an exhibition entitled The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World that presented the work of 17 artists whose paintings ‘reflect a singular approach that characterises our cultural moment at the beginning of this new millennium: they refuse to allow us to define or even metre our time by them’.
This strategy of time collapse by means of ‘a profligate mixing of past styles and genres’ is a powerful element in South African contemporary art across the board – not just painting. But South African painters (and artists making new paintings in South Africa) seem to be particularly committed to creating new dialogues with our troubled historical archive. Public and private histories intermingle, as the photographic document is untethered from the real by the visceral, fictive, reconfiguring power of paint. Here the paintings of Kate Gottgensand Lizza Littlewort take fierce grip of the imagination. Gottgens, whose status as a painter to be reckoned with was underlined by her selection as one of Thames & Hudson’s aforementioned 100 Painters of Tomorrow, forges unsettlingly familiar painterly fictions that draw on a disparate archive of found images. ‘One imprimatur is the ruthless audacity with which Gottgens uses blur to eliminate detail,’ wrote Lloyd Pollack in response to Infinite Loop, her 2015 solo at SMAC, Stellenbosch. ‘The particularities of setting, costume and expression dissolve into pigment. The sketchiness is deliberate, for Gottgens continually interrogates representation, the mechanics of image making, and the interplay between feeling and the fragmentary visual recollections that drift through the mind. She seeks the archetypal and discards specificity so that the viewer sees herself in the painting, rather than the nominal subject.’ Gottgens’ first Johannesburg solo, Famine, opens in SMAC’s new gallery space in the Trumpet building along the new Keyes Art Mile in lower Rosebank in mid-September – in tandem with the upcoming Joburg Art Fair.
More brutally direct in their unflinching engagements with South African history and public culture are Ndikhumbule Ngqinambi and Lizza Littlewort – and yet their handling of paint could not be more different. ‘Since her spectacularly satirical solo show We Live in the Past at 99 Loop in 2015, which worked as a contemporary critique of South African social history, Littlewort has turned to self-reflection, engaging with her own interior states through imagery of water painted on reflective surfaces of aluminium.’ Littlewort, like Gratrix, is all about the insanely seductive painterliness of paint, whereas Ngqinambi’s surfaces are flat and calculated – his dramatically dystopian social hypotheses disconcertingly real in the minimalist fashion of science-fiction projection.
Genres collide, styles and impulses overlap. Basic elements such as composition, colour and balance are constantly reassessed. More is never enough – give me the book and I’ll take the library. Painting is like that. Five painters seed fifteen. The medium is proliferating. It is alive. There will be no full stop here. Only an endless range of provisional answers to the proposition of what painting in South Africa might mean today.
Keyes Art Mile
The big news on the Joburg art scene is the launch of Rosebank’s Keyes Art Mile and the Trumpet building (officially open from 1 September for First Thursdays, where the street will be closed off for the occasion). Set to turn the suburb into a fine-art hot spot, the building is the first of many exciting developments of the metaphorical mile and welcomes SMAC Gallery, as well as collaboration between WHATIFTHEWORLD and Southern Guild. These new branches join the already established Circa and 100-year-old Everard Read, making the area a comprehensive art destination. SMAC’s first exhibition, opening to coincide with the launch of the building itself, will be a group show representing a selection from its stable of artists, entitled UPSTART/STARTUP. The Trumpet will also house Marble restaurantand high-end decor stores. The area will be joined over time by other exciting developments. Expect a range of cafes and shops at street level, creating a village high street feel and rounding out the Keyes Art Mile offering.
• FNB Joburg Art Fair: fnbjoburgartfair.co.za
• Cape Town Art Fair: capetownartfair.co.za
• Turbine Art Fair: turbineartfair.co.za
• That Art Fair: thatartfair.com
• Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa: zeitzmocaa.museum
• SMAC Gallery: smacgallery.com
• WHATIFTHEWORLD: whatiftheworld.com
• Southern Guild: southernguild.co.za
• Circa: circagallery.co.za
• Everard Read: everard-read.co.za
• Marble: marblerestaurant.co.za
Text Alex Dodd
Artwork Hermann Niebuhr, Portia Zvavahera, Kate Gottgens, Georgina Gratrix, Raél Jero Salley, Mia Chaplin, Michael Taylor, Alexandra Karakashian, Lizza Littlewort and Ndikhumbule Ngqinambi