Penny Siopis at Wits
Executed in craft paints, oil and watercolour, Penny Siopis' recent Shame series of paintings, currently on show in Athens, are a far cry from her famous signature piece, Melancholia. For one thing the works are small, tiny in fact, about the size of an A4 sheet of paper. And unlike the rich baroque wonderland of Melancholia, these paintings are rendered in a simple monotone: dirty reds and garish purples predominate.
I use the qualifying adjectives purposefully as this is a show about seedy subjects, furtive things: cunnilingus, child rape, murder, sexual abuse, in fact a whole gamut of skewed power relationships. In a conversation I had with the artist, she spoke of how the works had manifested themselves almost unconsciously. As such the scale is appropriate, each a small, obviously painful musing on matters both personal and public.
I must profess to finding Melancholia rather uninteresting, and was thus delighted by the paradoxical beauty of the Shame works - paradoxical because the paintings portray subjects that are by no means easy to confront.
Rather than filling her small canvasses with paint, Siopis has allowed negative space its own determinacy. In effect, this ably focussed my attentions on the abject histories being exorcised, as well as the clever minutiae of detail informing each painting, particularly the artist's ancillary use of craft stamps to imprint surreally cheerful, and hence jarring messaging across the troubled imagery. Indeed, one of the chief attributes of this show was the way the materials (the heritage branded craft paints and found rubber stamps) converse with and alter the meaning of the images depicted.
Complemented by a large installation of collected bric-a-brac - "apartheid things" as Siopis described them - the unruly assemblage of trophies, skulls, newsprint clips, Colin Richards' army uniform, Rhodesian memorabilia and Afrikaner kitsch tended to offer some intriguing moments, that is if the viewer was patient enough to isolate the large collection of historical 'junk' presented in the rectangular stack at the centre of the gallery space.
As with Melancholia, however, I found the installation as a whole a little overstated and full, which, when I left the gallery, again reinforced the simple beauty of Siopis' pain(t)ed haikus.
October 10 - 17
University of the Witwatersrand School of Arts (WSOA)
Jorissen Street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg