'Giving and Not Giving' - Bonita Alice at Bell-Roberts Art Gallery
by Paul Edmunds
To begin by noting that this exhibition includes a transcript of an interview the artist conducted with the head groundsman of Ellis Park stadium might suggest that it is a bit tedious. But this appears to be Bonita Alice's device: she draws from the mundane and prosaic an obscure yet elegant statement about people and their connection to their cultural and geographical roots. At best this is poignant and intriguing; at other times it is impenetrable and unconvincing. Alice uses the traditional media of oil painting and woodcarving as well as documentation of painted images she created on a sportsfield.
The theme of "turf" pervades the show. Literally the word refers to grass and sods, metaphorically to one's sense of place and roots. In her sculptures consisting of both carved and found elements, the schematised image of a patch of grass recurs. Obviously indebted to her one-time teacher Peter Schütz, these simplified forms are charming but it's unclear whether they invoke the meaning they purport to. Growing from prefabricated wooden bases, the tufts support bowls on top of which are piles of filleted fish, some modestly cast in a dull aluminium, as in Giving II. A large untitled work takes this motif and blows it up to the scale of furniture. Sustenance it promises, but there is always the possibility of rot, the pearlescent painted wood being as feverish as it is attractive.
The paintings consist mostly of still lifes depicting a topography of containers holding an indeterminate white substance. Sustenance is played off against opulence in small scenes which assume the stature of landscapes. In Still Life I-VI, heart-shaped bowls containing some sort of flesh are arranged on a table's surface. Glimpses of woods, fields and clearly European vistas form the background to the table-top tableaux. Alice makes reference to specific places in works such as Ladle and St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Here an unusually angled soup ladle is set off against an image of, one assumes, the above-mentioned cathedral.
Alice departs from traditional media to produce Turf, which is presented here in the form of a large photographic triptych as well as video documentation. Working with a sign company that specialises in reproducing corporate logos on sportsfields for television, she designed the simple motifs which depict sheets of corrugated iron. The first is flat and rectangular, the next wrapped like a rain tank and another is bent along its corrugations. These, by "anamorphic perspectival distortion", appear three-dimensional and on the same plane as the camera. They also look suspended above the field, the illusion completed by "shadows" painted some distance away. The work is site-specific, placed on the fields of Barnato Park High School in Berea, Johannesburg, where the artist's forebears attended school. The sheets of iron make reference to cheap and impermanent building materials, characteristic of informal housing. In the show's attractive catalogue, Alice discusses the inevitably temporary claim that people make on the place where they live, and in this light the work ruminates on the passing of this claim for her family who have since died or moved away. Without the writing, however, I doubt I would have got there.
Alice's competence in woodcarving and oil painting is satisfying. The images she chooses are for the most part accessible and the area she explores is relevant in a land of settlers and dispossessed. Her use of symbols sometimes stretches to reach the ideas discussed in the abundant writing on the exhibition's walls and catalogue. The technique she employed to produce Turf is original but, together with the shaky video documentary, appears as a formal device which took the first opportunity that suggested itself. This makes for an immediately impressive work, but one whose impact is not sustained.
Opening: Wednesday August 15 at 6.30pm
Closing: September 15
Bell-Roberts Art Gallery, 199 Loop Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1100
Fax: (021) 423 3135
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm