William Kentridge, Universal Archive, Ref. 61 (2012)
linocut on non-archival pages from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
edition of 15
image courtesy of barbara edwards contemporary art

William Kentridge at Barbara Edwards Contemporary Art, Toronto.


          By 1975, when William Kentridge began his exuberantly prolific career in Johannesburg, the technological artifacts and appliances he was to illustrate in drawings, sculptures, films and prints were already, or soon to be, obsolete. This feature of the subject-matter has been noted by numerous critics. The artist himself commented on it in a 2002 issue of October magazine.

          In a short, jotty 2013 version of this text, Kentridge describes in scatter-shot fashion his liking for old-fashioned devices. For example, he observes, of Bakelite rotary-dial telephones,  a fit between the object and his preferred drawing medium: “The blackness of Bakelite and the darkness of charcoal seem made for each other.” He believes “all mechanical technologies are coherent in a way that electronic technologies are not….There is something directly ‘drawable’ about mechanical as opposed to electronic technology.”

          Biography, too, plays a part in his choice--perhaps a greater part than he acknowledges in this text. “There is a certain familiarity and reassurance in a Bakelite phone, for example, which has to do with the certainties of childhood (the phone that I depict is one from my own childhood).”

          Stepping back from his immediate history, he remarks on “this persistence of the old” in  his art (and in expressive culture), which, he believes, has the power to contradict colonial mentality. “A refusal to move with the times is also a refusal to accept the neat precepts or preoccupations of the metropolitan centre--far off, and often mistakenly assuming that its concerns are the only ones appropriate to everywhere else.” Portraying a digital phone would be “very much about fashion, style and temporality.” As Kentridge understands the gesture, portraying a rotary phone, a manual typewriter or a reel-to-reel tape recorder in an age dominated by digital media is counterstatement against empire, resistance to the juggernaut of modernization.

          Or at least to certain kinds of modernization. He is not a reactionary. Both before and since the end of apartheid in the 1990s, he has supported the evolution of his South African homeland into a modern, liberal, multicultural society.

          Which is to say that Kentridge has picked and chosen from modernity’s offerings--accepting, for instance, one of modernity’s political formulations (social democracy) while rejecting, both as subjects and as means of art-making, the ever-new gadgets produced and marketed  by late capitalist industry.

          Everyone who dwells in a city shaped by political, cultural and technological modernity, of course, makes an accommodation with this mixture of complex forces, and lives within the terms of the contract.  Some tolerate computers, but not network television, atheism, mass-produced food or another offspring of secularization. Many cherish representative government as a concept, but do not vote. There are people who will not own a smart phone, and Kentridge is hardly alone among contemporary artists in his reluctance to represent one.

          In fact, his preference for obsolete telephones, writing machines, recording devices and espresso-pots is perhaps best read as a manifestation of the archaism that has been endemic within modern art and modernist culture since the birth of modernity itself. Start looking for it in the present era, and you will encounter the long gaze backward in the eyes of countless urban Westerners, both layfolk and artists. This gazing into the distance is a defining disposition of the age. The transcended past is regarded constantly--at times with affection (camp), or with hunger for more vivid affective life (primitivism in all its varieties), with desperate nostalgia for a presumably lost frankness, simplicity, integrity (fundamentalisms of all sorts, including materialistic ones)--or, in the case of Kentridge, with yearning for “the certainties of childhood.”

          Such yearning is not dishonourable or necessarily pathological (whatever Freud thought), and it can be, and is in Kentridge’s art, vigorous and wonderfully productive.

          But more than the security of boyhood’s busy, intelligent, warm Jewish household--his parents were distinguished anti-apartheid lawyers during the final decades of the old regime--is denoted by the familiar, old-fashioned typewriters and telephones he presents.  The objects are not rendered with optical certitude, as they would be in a manufacturer’s catalogue. Kentridge’s restless delineation of out-of-date machines--his rapid, risky manner, the urgent sketching and scrawling-- registers, not objective solidity, but an acutely keen consciousness of their (and his, and our) existential fragility.

          Artists learn this sensitivity and resonance early, if at all. Kentridge appears to have acquired these traits by the time he emerged, aged 20, on the Johannesburg arts scene. One of the “certainties of childhood,” of growing up with passionate opponents of the racial state, was the constant awareness of contingency that must have pervaded life at home--the family’s awareness of itself as something opposite South Africa’s official social imaginary, the recognition of uncertainty as the only certainty. Be that as it may, the grown-up artist’s prints--often gawkily funny, sometimes excessive, sometimes as laconic as Chinese ideograms, touched by a certain melancholy--speak of deep experience with uncertainty, which can be another word for freedom.



Stephen Andrews' Abstracts: Some Afterthoughts    


butterfly effect 5, oil on canvas (2014)
image courtesy of paul petro contemporary art

Coming to the end of Stephen Andrews POV, the 15-year survey shown this spring and summer at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the visitor landed in a room hung with six of the artist’s recent abstract canvases. Toronto Star critic Murray Whyte, in his review, described  the paintings he found there as “beautiful but eerie.” “I call [the room] my Rothko chapel,” quipped Andrews to Whyte, “except I’m not a depressive.”

          While anyone would be foolish to make much of Andrews’ off-hand remark, it’s hard not to hear diffidence in the joke--as if the artist meant to charmingly, but pointedly, deflect the conversation with Whyte away from things he didn’t want to talk about.

          If that were the case, nobody could blame Andrews for his reticence. The final gallery was a surprise, begging for explanation of the sort the artist may well have been unprepared to give. (Perhaps he was as surprised as everyone else.) The essays and interviews in curator Kitty Scott’s catalogue only hinted at what such an explanation might look like. At first glance, anyway, little in the painting done before a couple of years ago--the fascinating, politically charged, restlessly energetic narrative art-making that dominated the show--seemed to lay the ground for the sedate non-objective images in the last room.

          I can’t say I know what this work was about. Andrews may have to do a lot more of it before its creative logic becomes really obvious. But I can say that these six paintings were indelibly stamped on my mind when I first saw them, and I returned to the exhibition before its late-August closing to look at and think of them again.

          Why did I go back? Not because these paintings were “eerie.” In fact, more secular, materialistic, anti-symbolist artworks have never been made.  Each image in the series called Butterfly Effect--a reference, a wall-text said, to chaos theory, of which I know nothing--were simply composed of a few large overlapping oblongs of translucent oil glaze. These shiny rectangular expanses, we learn from the catalogue, were created by pressing paint-laden pieces of Mylar on primed canvas, in the manner of a monoprint. Thus, the expressive, signature brushstroke on the picture plane--so important to many painters these days--was suppressed.

          Which is not to say the coloured rectangles were featureless. The transference of glaze to canvas was attractively imperfect, leaving blotches, stains, puddles and other casualties on the surface. Only machines are capable of flawless performance, Andrews has noted, and he intends to expose frankly the fact that an accident-prone human, not a mechanical device, has made his art.

          But machines screw up, too. The agitations visible in Andrews’ paint-work were less like mistakes made by beginning (or clumsy) watercolourists than like the false registration, smudging and smearing and tearing that happen when an automated printing press goes haywire. The blemishes on the surface of these paintings, that is, recalled errors in a technical procedure, not the foibles of the human hand. They were reminders of the fallible realities, rather than the progressive myths, of the age of mechanical reproduction.

           Nothing insisted on the connection of these paintings with printing technologies more firmly, of course, than Andrews’ choice of colours--which also linked these recent pieces back to his work before now. The palette was a version, in luminous oils, of the flat, spiritless ink-hues used in four-colour printing. The colours of the so-called CMYK model are cyan, or greenish blue; printer’s magenta, a purplish red; and intense (“process”) yellow--with black, though not a colour, usually added as the fourth element (“K”) in the series. Kitty Scott believed that the cores of the Butterfly Effect canvases, where the cyan, magenta and yellow overlays coincided, were “black.” They were not, as Alexander Nagel correctly observed in his catalogue essay. The mixture of the three colours produces a turbid, thick, unresolved darkness, not true black, which has to be added if outlining is wanted. As far as I can tell, Andrews never applied real black paint to any of the Butterfly Effect paintings.

          In their migration from printers’ ink to luxurious fine-art oil, from workshop to studio, from magazine kiosk to museum, the hard-hat pigments that constitute cyan and magenta and process yellow almost attained middle-class respectability. Almost--but not quite. I think Murray Whyte was mistaken when he called the paintings “beautiful.” It made them sound bourgeois, which they weren’t. The works asked for other adjectives--ones more appropriate to creatures that have emerged on the vexed frontier where Pop Art meets Minimalism, where colour-field abstraction meets mass production. Words such as: imposing, as large machines often are. Or queer, insofar as they burlesque the Abstract Sublime and ironize the macho (and exhausted) post-painterly languages of the transcendent, Or cool, in the slang sense, and in terms of philosophical temperature. Or interesting, the way every photograph is.


untitled oil on Masonite (2015)
image courtesy of Paul Petro Contemporary Art



André Ethier at Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto


          As recently as early 2014, when André Ethier last showed his oils at Paul Petro, the small oblongs of Masonite could still, on occasion, be awful in an intriguing way, like the behaviours of Freud’s Rat Man--puzzling, crudely libidinal, obsessive, screwed up. But by then the artist had begun to curb the aggression and oddity that previously fuelled his painting project. He had acquired a new resource, Matisse, and his art was becoming “kinda French”--a phrase he uses for both himself and his product--and being softened and de-kinked by Mediterranean breezes.

          With New Grapes, Ethier’s summer, 2015, display at Paul Petro, this transfiguration of his painting’s sense from raw to cooked, from stress to luxe, calme et volupté, was largely complete. The colours were dry and mineral, but fragrant, like scented face-powder. The grape bunches, dense foliage, fruits deposited on fin-de-siècle tables were lush, succulent, at their peak and not even slightly past it. A bearded gentleman--Ethier once told me that all his male figures are self-portraits--relaxed in a flourishing garden. The prevailing atmosphere was sunny and sub-tropical. There was not a cancerous nose or rotting vegetable or livid bouquet in the show, or much else to remind gallery-goers of Ethier’s usual painting in the first decade of this century.

          But in a couple of works, a character reappeared from Ethier’s earlier tradition of self-portrayal as urban bum. He is a hairy hobo in dark glasses and dressed in striped pyjamas (or a prison uniform), who is found cavorting in gravity-free space with clones of himself, and, once, lounging improbably, and quite out of place, beside an opulently arrayed table in a fusty parlor.

           In the latter painting, the two personae that Ethier has assumed over the course of his 15-year career met--the earlier one angry, the later one peaceable; one bitter, the other generously sensuous; one resentful, the other almost respectable. If their rendezvous seemed forced and slightly uncomfortable, it was because the painting united in a single frame two sensibilities (or creative strategies for engaging the world--one critical, one decorative) that normally disdain each other.

          What is to be made of the change in Ethier’s art during the last few years? Is it--to use a “kinda French” word, since no plainer English one means what I want--so much cultural embourgeoisement? And if so--so what?

          Considered as craft and knack with materials, his picture-making has never been better. The best of his compositions are vigorous, profane as a beach holiday, inhabited by modern painting’s durable symbols of heterosexual arousal, including grapes swollen with sap and naked, ripe female bottoms. Were I a more rigorous feminist than I am, or were I an admirer of only those painters who abstemiously reject every inherited conceit and figure, I might dismiss Ethier’s new art because it gladly, unquestionally aligns itself with the sensuously relaxed aesthetic regime of Matisse, and adopts even the topics--still life, the domestic interior, the female figure--that Matisse treated so memorably.

          But being neither much of a feminist nor an avant-gardist of any sort, I generally appreciated what Ethier did in New Grapes. In my view, the frank, rapidly but deftly drawn paintings there have earned a noteworthy spot in the heavily crowded field of contemporary artworks that claim to be fertilized by Matisse.

          That said, I missed, in New Grapes,  the obnoxiousness, the toxic colours and sick cartooning which had interested me keenly when I wrote my 2013 essay on Ethier for Canadian Art. (Text here.) These obstreperous qualities were already disappearing by that time, but enough downright orneriness remained in the work to reward close attention.

          At first glance, this orneriness seemed driven by a will to frustrate almost everybody’s expectations about what “good art’ should look like. I do mean everybody: toney formalist and post-modern critics, friends of “normal” painting and fans of photography, art-world leftists and rightists, feminists and the new-media crowd and, of course, your Aunt Harriet. If some writers for the dailies liked Ethier’s neurotic, emotionally wasted pictures, it was probably because, as I and my fellow journalists know, the uppity always make good copy.

          But had our curiosity been grinding away in the right gear, we might have hesitated a long moment before visiting either blame or praise on Ethier’s early artworks. For in their bluntness and brashness, in their grating strangeness, these tableaux, portraits, still-lifes, hysterical or desperately banal genre paintings insisted on their right to be given time, to be taken seriously, to be about something. They smelled like the bitter ash of brains burnt out by consumerism, the culture of disposability, mass media’s numbing of affect. They offered glimpses of the ordinary urban world, its things and marginal people, as seen by this century’s citizens, especially young ones, who had been numbed, discarded, exhausted by the seethe of mass culture.

          At least I think it’s mass culture that did them in. Perhaps I am merely projecting onto this art my own theories and preoccupations. For his part--in the painting itself, I mean--Ethier declined to identify the forces that had infected his times with dry ennui, hungover torpor. Instead, throughout the years before his adoption of Matisse’s manner, he created a series of pictures--some of them unforgettable--that document a despairing spirituality common enough in the urban West. If he found no cure, so be it: painters do not need to be saviours. What he did--the art and evidence he made and showed--was good enough.


--August, 2015











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