Open mic for Rory Plamer
by Joost Bosland
The 38 Special Gallery, an old warehouse situated diagonally across from the District Six Museum, is a bit of an odd player in the Cape Town art world. It appears to be a coffee shop first and foremost, catering to the young professional crowd working in and around Parliament. Yet, its walls are being put to good use displaying emerging artists who do not have access to polished A-list exhibition spaces.
The art is significantly more affordable than at more established art dealers, which puts owning art within reach for some who could otherwise not afford an original piece on their wall. But it is not affordability alone that makes 38 Special well worth a visit. It is an opportunity to see fresh work by budding artists trying to establish themselves.
Music venues often include so-called 'open mic' nights in their programme. Here, there is space in the cultural landscape where untrained singers, quirky songwriters and drop-out poets can compete for recognition. A few are quite good, some of them might be rubbish, but all of them have a true passion for their art. All young artists need, it seems, is a platform and some feedback, and open mics provide just that. No true equivalent, however, exists in the visual arts sector. A young, struggling painter or photographer rarely shows his or her work to anyone but his or her closest friends..
The gap between one's own porch or community centre studio and a white cube in Greenpoint is large, and 38 Special might be able to bridge it for some. An important function in the complicated Cape Town art infrastructure can be served by less conventional public art spaces. The visual cultural production of a city is a nebulous, complex and multi-layered body of work. Spaces where visual art can be put into the public domain, however, are mostly stratified in internally homogenous layers. This discrepancy between production and the available channels of communication results in a skewed art market where traditional commercial galleries serve as gatekeepers.
38 Special, by providing a platform to a different segment of the cultural production nebula, contributes to a more heterogeneous market, which benefits everyone, simply because it provides diversified points of entry into the gallery circuit, for collectors and artists alike. And to top it all off, they serve a pretty decent cappuccino.
On show is Rory Palmer's exhibition 'Let's Not Forget Paintings and Other Stories'. In many ways, Palmer is typical of the sort of artists you will find at 38 Special. When he found his art studies at Rhodes University to be too confining, Palmer decided to explore his own artistic path, and this is his first show. Most of the paintings are dated 2004, which suggests an impressive industriousness on behalf of the young artist. It also suggests that Palmer has only recently started working along the lines discernible at the exhibition, which would account for some of its shortcomings.
The choice to separate the show into two parts - oil paintings on the first floor and ink-on-paper on the second - naturally draws on the two distinct characters of the respective bodies of work.
The collection of oil paintings downstairs lacks a certain sense of consistency. The largest work in the room, with the provocative title Jesus Fucking Christ, is a formally well-balanced display of primal rage. A large red tongue lashes diagonally across the canvas from the mouth of a yellow creature. The simplified form has a thick black outline, which in combination with its even yellow fill-in is reminiscent of a Keith Haring figure. The piece shows Palmer at his best, merging the expressiveness of an angry young soul with art-historical awareness.
Many of the smaller works, however, only hint at Palmer's potential. He seems to quickly pick up interesting concepts, but to just as easily dispel them without exploring their full potential. Consequently, the paintings on show feel like studies rather than finished pieces. If Palmer would use his industriousness to linger on promising ideas, the overall quality of his oil painting might improve significantly.
The works upstairs give a totally different impression - Palmer is clearly at ease with the aesthetic of the graffiti-inspired, Basquiatesque ink drawings. The large sheets of quality paper are merely suspended from wires, and against the backdrop of old brick walls the effect is impressive.
One Flew Over and The Artist's Muse are two drawings that deserve particular attention. Both absolute bargains at less than R1000, they are the works in which Palmer seems to have pushed himself the furthest. The former employs coarsely drawn pop culture figures - perhaps an autistic Mickey Mouse and a schizophrenic Easter Bunny - framed by bright pink and green patches. The frivolous colours form a sharp contrast with the uncanny creatures. The second drawing plays with the juxtaposition of text and illustration, a recurring theme in Palmer's work, which is pushed further by granting equal status to the painterly scribblings and the surreal figure of a hand.
At times, his lack of training shows. The Trouble with Lou, a drawing of a man in black ink, shows that Palmer is not yet completely comfortable with the human form. In the charming Star Bound, depicting a fantasy astronaut oddly reminiscent of the Petit Prince, the artist operates without the self-imposed constraints of realistic representation, with an infinitely superior drawing as the outcome.
A significant aspect of Palmer's status as an art school drop-out is how it reflects on the 38 Special Gallery itself. Many exhibition venues would not consider work from someone who has not followed a neat Wits/Michaelis trajectory. This exclusivist approach carries with it the danger of potentially overlooking non-conventional talent. For that reason alone, anyone with a sincere interest in the art of the Mother City should be familiar with the venue. If not, it is high time you venture to 38 Buitenkant Street for a cappuccino, a slice of cake and a good look around.