Archive: Issue No. 50, October 2001

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Lize Hugo

Lize Hugo
From 'Contact Zone' series
Oil on canvas

Lize Hugo - 'Contact Zone' at the AVA
by Paul Edmunds

To someone who frequents the promenade between Bantry Bay and Mouille Point in Cape Town, many of the characters and scenes in Lize Hugo's 'Contact Zone' are instantly recognisable. Hugo's accurate depictions are obviously based on photographs, a relationship that, while creating a tension between the documentary position of a photographer and the subjective involvement of a painter, is sometimes unconvincing.

'Contact Zone' refers to a geological phenomenon visible at the westerly edge of Sea Point. A plaque explains that the formation resulted from hot molten rock penetrating the layers of sedimentary stone above it, leaving dramatic, vein-like pale quartz intrusions (Darwin noted its presence when he sailed to the Cape in the 1800s). Hugo draws attention to the plaque's description of "an impressive contact zone of dark slate with pale intrusive granite". The metaphorical extension of this to the racial and cultural history of South Africa, as well as to Sea Point's own particular cultural dynamic, is obvious. Hugo has chosen her array of subjects to reflect this diversity.

Hugo's paintings abut one another in a horizontal band that wraps around the large gallery space. Each is about the size of an A4 page, framed in light grey wood and horizontally oriented. This is an unusual choice since people are more the subject of the work than the landscape. But the horizontal band which the paintings form seems to suggest some kind of narrative, perhaps a series of frames from a film. Reinforcing this are recurrent motifs - the steel balustrade which separates the promenade from the beach, the ubiquitous blue litter bins, the Mouille Point lighthouse.

The promenade is as much a refuge for Sea Point's homeless as it is a place of recreation for the city's more privileged residents, and Hugo has chosen her subjects freely from this varied cast. She has covered her canvases with a light yellow or orange imprimatura which often shows through the economical brushwork, an undertone of warmth. We see the Rastafarians stretching out on rocks at the water's edge, and a badly parked BMW with its driver busy on a phone call. A washed up, denim-clad joller is caught by the sun in front of a bright wall. His shadow reveals a thinning ponytail and he seems caught mid-thought, looking at the blue litter bin attached to a lamppost in front of him. Hugo is able to reveal an expression, the slightest gesture and most natural of postures with very little paint. As viewers we find ourselves attempting to reconstruct these clues into a familiar whole in individual works and in the collection.

There is a shortcoming in Hugo's methodology, however: while her reliance on photographs is not a fault in itself, there are issues she leaves unaddressed. She faithfully reproduces overexposure and other photographic "faults". Awkward foreshortenings and tricks of the light might be read by a photograph's viewer, but are less forgiving in a painting. Photographs don't always provide the kind of information a painter requires and at times she seems to have relied too heavily on the patchy data her pictures offered. A child on the beach, playing in the harsh sunlight, gestures towards the camera, leaving an awkward truncated form where his arm should be. The legs of a domestic worker sitting on a bench are obscured by shadow and look withered. A nearby pram has wheels which don't appear to be parallel. Ironically, though, my favourite image is that of a lone jogger, caught mid-frame against a stormy sea. Although his legs are awkwardly rendered, the privacy of the runner's experience set into the most public of contexts in a curiously considered composition lends poignancy to the work.

Closes November 3

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