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Who's afraid of the crowd?

Penny Siopis at STEVENSON in Cape Town

By Lloyd Pollak
14 April - 10 May. 0 Comment(s)

Penny Siopis
Ash, 2011. ink and glue on canvas 180 x 200cm.

Only the word 'entrancement' can convey my response to Penny Siopis’s new ink and wood-glue paintings with their radiant mists of iridescent crimson, scarlet, fuchsia and cerise floating over creamy, faintly blushing white grounds. The artist injects inky figurations into her luscious field of shimmering white, and then buries them in opalescent crusts of semi-opaque wood-glue into which the ink bleeds like a drop of cochineal dissolving in water. The textural and chromatic delights she extracts from her unconventional materials prove irresistible, and it is only when we have sated ourselves on these aesthetic splendours that we ponder the meaning of the work, and register the dissonance between the brutality of the subject matter and the ethereal delicacy of the technique.

Photostats of archival material documenting past historical atrocities, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and the gruesome public hangings during race riots in America, are placed alongside the paintings, indicating that they form a meditation on history and the dangers of the herd instinct, mob hysteria and the brutish, irrational drives that overtake humanity at moments of crisis.

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The Hungry (2011) is bracketed with a reproduction of a 12th century Japanese scroll painting of the drowning victims of a deluge. The theme is calamity, and nature emerges as just as vicious and unpredictable as humanity. In this swooningly lovely creation, fondant veils of strawberry, shrimp and amber dissolve into the light bounced back by the pale oyster pink ground. The Hungry verges on the lyrical, but Siopis’s lyricism is all her own, and it is a surgical lyricism of plasma and gore reminiscent of the tormented burlap splashed with red that evokes wounds and bandages in Alberto Burri’s sack paintings or Bacon’s orgies of bleeding flesh. However, Siopis’s delving into blood and viscera is stylised, ritualised and aestheticised, displaying the exquisite Japanese refinement of touch that Akira Kurosawa brought to his films Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962).

Fragmentary figurative elements in the lower register of the canvas portray women, a child and a Buddha-like male. These materialise indistinctly from a flurry of abstract marks, only to dematerialise again as they disappear behind colour splashes, or dissolve into the enveloping wood-glue. Above occurs a void filled with some vaporous substance like mist or spray tinted the palest shade of pink.

Blow-up (2010) is an explosive abstract portrayal of the mushroom cloud at Hiroshima conjured up in a splashy wash of golden brown that conveys the impact of the bomb, and the way it caused pulverised matter to fly upwards on every side. Like Ash (2011) it reveals Siopis’ debt to the mid-century American colour field artists Frankenthaler, Olitsky and Louis, who rejected brushwork and, instead, soaked their canvases with highly diluted paint so that the resultant oozy washes are not brushed on top of the canvas but absorbed into its fabric. Siopis’s pigments thus become immaterial, and appear to consist of billowing sprays of liquid so fine they seem to be volatilising.

In the second gallery we quit the clinical neutrality of the white cube, and enter a dim, charcoal-gray space where Siopis’s ultra-baroque sensibility unleashes itself in excitant theatricality, colour, music and light. A video makes the entire ambience flicker and glow, while the painting’s glowering blacks and flaming oranges and reds smoulder balefully in the gloom. The strains of a hypnotic African lullaby fill our ears, mediating our response to the paintings, and the gallery becomes a place apart, a space of contemplation, a chapel dedicated to the Irish nun, Dr. Elsie Quinlan, whose murder the video Communion (2011) reconstructs.

Quinlan, a 33-year-old Irish Dominican nun commonly known as Sister Aidan, was stoned, beaten, stabbed and set alight, her corpse then partly cannibalised by an inflamed mob in Duncan Village, a location outside East London during the Defiance campaign in 1952. This was a particularly horrific slaying as Sister Aidan dedicated her life to the welfare of the Duncan Village community. In Communion naturalistic sequences drawn from old home movies alternate with passages of pure abstraction in which the film stock appears to blister, crack and flood with colour like the paintings. The video provides a model of restraint. Using subtitles, Sister Aidan speaks from beyond the grave, relating the story of her death in the first person. A stark lapidary perfection is the hallmark of Siopis’ prose. Sentences are short and terse; words simple, and adjectives dispensed with. The swelling momentum of the lullaby, the muted percussion and wind instruments, and the sweet trilling voices of a female choir, compliment the footage of falling water at Victoria Falls that accompanies the nun’s immolation, creating an effect of acceptance and resolution in absolute counterpoint to the viciousness of the scenario.

Death and intimations of some kind of survival are the dominating metaphysical themes. Even Siopis’s most overtly gorgeous paintings, such as Host (2011), appear to deal with Sister Aidan. The title refers to the Eucharist and transubstantiation whereby the wafer miraculously becomes Christ’s flesh. Bouffant waves and ripples of melting orange and vermilion hues create a large flower-like form with waving petals that also read as flames consuming the naked female figure in the centre of the blossom. Siopis’s crowds can be anarchic and destructive, or life-giving, and benign, and the base of Host is occupied by a wraith-like assembly of pious figures, their heads drooping down in mourning as in a Renaissance entombment.   

Fragments of recognisable imagery continually rise to the surface and sink back again. Siopis rids matter of volume and mass, dissolving it into the impalpable. Her works describe how things bode forth, lapse into nothingness, and then come back into being again, and this process assumes overtones of survival and immortality, giving the work a positive slant.

Siopis attempts to create an abstract painterly equivalent of Sister Aidan’s agony in Gulf (2011), a fortissimo, apocalyptic vision in the tradition of the grandest set pieces of high romanticism like Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), Turner’s Hannibal crossing the Alps (1812) and Bryulov’s The Last Day of Pompeii (1833). Here the chiffony wispiness and flowing pigments vanish. Ink and glue are blended to form a thick, viscous poultice that covers the canvas in dense encrustations. The brown, gray and black colour patches create a notional landscape of charred mountain forests, chasms and ravines interspersed with the fiery reds of leaping flames, burning embers and rivulets of molten metal. Two silhouetted figures from Goya’s Fight with Clubs (1820) just off-centre at base state the theme of murderous aggression.           
Unraveling surgical stitching, bleeding incisions and spatters of blood occur on top of the nacreous wood glue. As it is partly transparent our eye travels through its layers into depth where bruises, contusions and lacerations drawn in pink ink bleed into the amber-like substance in which they are encased. In Time and Again (2011) some kind of spiritual detonation has taken place, and swirling human figures fly with hectic momentum in a cyclonic formation against a space filled with such bright light that its infinite depths dissolve into glare. These aerial pyrotechnics resemble the illusionism Tiepolo deploys in the vaulted ballrooms of Venetian rococo palazzos, which he fills with flying figures, Olympian gods, clouds and gilded rays. Time and Again is a discharge of brilliant light, which carries all its traditional Christian associations with enlightenment and divine presence. The jubilant palette of gold, amber, mulberry, a frosted white – like the icing on a wedding cake – and pale pinks arouses a euphoric mood of exaltation founded on belief in divine providence and the immortality of the soul.

Citations abound. Degas’s acrobat from Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando (1879) makes a posthumous appearance in Time and Again, while Wyeth’s crippled female from Christina’s World (1948) crawls over the surface of the earth, a symbol of post-atomic survival in Cloud (2011). Siopis applies her fusion of drawing and painting to daunting metaphysical issues in an art of virtuosic display redolent of El Greco, Bernini, Caravaggio, Turner and Delacroix’s sublime showmanship.

Lloyd Pollak is an art critic based in Cape Town