'Drawing Conclusions' at the Association of Arts, Pretoria
by Sean O'Toole
"Down must we go, to that dark world and blind," the poet said, turning on me a bleak, blanched face; "I will go first - come thou behind." There are a lot of useful reasons for starting a review with a quote culled from Dante's Divine Comedy, not the least because Virgil's observations to his as-yet-uninitiated travel companion speak of a place called Hell. 'Drawing Conclusions' is a show presented in Pretoria, and for many Pretoria quite simply is hell.
The mother of civil servants, Pretoria is, as the writer Christopher Hope caustically observed from personal memory, a city of Calvinists, jacarandas, museums, monuments, police, politicians and uniforms; a city with one foot in the 19th century and the other in Woolworth's. But Dante isn't singularly useful for sarcasm. No, Dante's hell is useful for other reasons.
When Dante looked into the pit, he returned with some keen insights. Hell, he claimed, is "deep, dense, and by no faintest glimmer lit". Now in a certain sense, not only do these words aptly paraphrase Pretoria, but they also describe the earnest concerns of this group show staged in Pretoria. At times it's deep, yet again dense, but mostly it's by no faintest glimmer lit.
After a 14-year of partnership with the University of Pretoria, Diane Victor is set to leave the art school milieu to pursue a career abroad, in London. This group show, curated by Victor, is her farewell to Pretoria. With most of the works dated 2002, it is by no means a retrospective charting of the undeniable influence this capable artist has had on a generation of graduates. Rather it is a musing on mentorship, and more pointedly an attempt to reclaim something of a place for drawing in the lexicon of contemporary local art.
Victor's technical influence is everywhere apparent, even in the virtuosity of Hanneke Benade's pastel work Sophia. Yet more than technique, it is the vexed emotional topography that Victor's work explores that seems to have had a significant influence. It is thus the case that Victor's large-scale charcoal and pastel drawing Little Deposition Picture not only sets the benchmark visual style, it also underscores the show's two major themes: dysfunctional sex and death.
Whether or not one agrees with the abject nihilism that tends to underscore Victor's Little Deposition Picture, one cannot decry Victor's sensitivity to how the dysfunctional workings of social society exact their impact on intimately personal beings. As one critic has observed, her "sometimes macabre drawings of physical, sexual and psychological violence indicate a critical awareness of the flaws and contradictions within our social structures". In this respect Victor's work is about far more than some comedic hell.
But what makes this show worth the effort? Retha Erasmus, winner of the 2001 PPC Young Concrete Sculptors Competition, and curator of last year's 'Clean' exhibition in Johannesburg. This young talent offers an interesting sculptural detour from all the deep and dense undercurrents of the show's drawings. She even offers more than the faintest glimmer of light with her glass case installation, lit by fluorescent purple neon, no less.
Yet it is not the technique, tonalities or even textures of the individual works themselves that ultimately merit pause. Rather it is the setting. Pretoria. As Christopher Hope again observed, Pretoria, despite being smaller than Johannesburg, is much more important. Well, so it was in 1988 when Hope's words were first published, back when Pretoria still exerted its force of will over our then glum kultuur. You can still see reminders of this past in the Association's gallery shop, for sale. Bettie Cilliers Barnard, Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, maybe even the humanist Pretoria Boys' High School master Walter Battis. Once upon a pre-1990, they were big names. Now they aptly suggest the distance travelled between the steadfast Pretoria of yesteryear, and the irresolute future its towns-volk choose to engineer.
Which might also suggest why the town's young seek depth and density, when their past is now only by a faintest glimmer lit.
Until February 28
Association of Arts, 173 Mackie Street, Nieuw Muckleneuk, Pretoria
Tel: (012) 346 3100
Fax: (012) 346 3125
Hours: Tues - Fri 10am - 4.30pm, Sat 10am - 12pm