A long overdue monograph is finally published on the renowned artist Penny Siopis
by Kresta Tyler Johnson
A monograph on the work of artist Penny Siopis has just been published, solidifying her position in the annals of South African art history. Creating a portrait of the artist and some of her most important works, concerns, developments and obsessions, its essays are written by scholars with intimate knowledge of the artist.
After over 30 years of creating monumental works, which engage South Africa politically, historically, emotionally and sensually, this well documented and thoroughly researched monograph awards her long overdue acclaim.
Seven authors engage with various aspects of Siopis' oeuvre and herself, each providing both their personal knowledge and subjective opinions on the eloquent artist. The book is edited by Siopis' former student Kathryn Smith, herself a multifaceted artist and individual who seems to have taken cues from her former teacher.
The selection of authors provides a thorough overview to novice readers of the breadth of Siopis and her work, while offering further academic understanding to those already familiar with the artist.
Colin Richards begins the book with an essay focused on the surface of Siopis' works. Surface is at the heart of her creations whether they are heavily layered paintings or three dimensional installations. The tactility of Siopis' work is something of a signature and often provides at least an initial foray into the deeper layers of her constructs.
Richards elaborates on the concept of trauma, and Siopis' use of skin and mirrors are focal points in his essay as he delves into the genesis of her historical paintings and persistent use of the tension between the public and private spectra. All of these topics continually re-appear in other essays throughout the monograph.
Griselda Pollock investigates the context of painting and history painting in relation to a nine year time frame. Pollock continues probing the use of specific objects in Siopis' works such as mirrors, sugar and the appearance of Siopis' son as well as the importance of the narrative. Brenda Atkinson engages with the public versus private debate in Siopis' work and comments on Siopis' ability for remembrance and recall.
Siopis takes herself to task, writing about her personal video installation piece My Lovely Day. It is an unusual decision to include an essay written by the artist, but here completely appropriate. The integral knowledge Siopis possesses in relation to her own work and her ability to articulate such, allow unfettered access into her practice. Siopis' work as an academic, writer, critic and curator provide her with the skills to explicate her own artistic identity in an objective way.
Jennifer Law who has completed copious research and writing on Siopis looks at one work in particular, the piece Will. Embodying the artist's 'historical fetish', this piece will be the culmination of Siopis' life work, as personal objects associated with her are bequeathed to particular individuals who will only be revealed after the artist's death.
Achille Mbembe's sparse questioning of Siopis forces the artist to give detailed commentary on her obsessive collection of objects, her various methodologies and the importance of specific qualities within her work. Sarah Nuttall's final essay is a poignant discussion around the most recent and provocative works, her 'Pinky Pinky' and 'Shame' series.
The book reveals Siopis as a rare artist who possesses the ability to be critical not only of herself but art in general, and who continually strives for a more enlightened state within South African art. Siopis has an uncanny ability to infiltrate and transcribe reality in an unsurpassed manner. Her works are replete with objects teeming with personal histories and memories that also act as media to convey universal ideas.
My only criticism would be the incongruousness between references to colour plates and their placement in the book. The images are not numbered either. Also, an eye which appears at the end of each essay is a bit contrived and detracts from the power of Pinky Pinky's glare on the cover.
Beyond that it is certainly a collectible monograph and one that will enrich the documentation of contemporary South African art.
The monograph is available from the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.
Smith, Katherine (editor), 2005, Penny Siopis. Johannesburg: Goodman Gallery