Paul Emmanuel: The medium is the message
The triad of militarism, patriarchy and masculinity has a particular resonance in post-apartheid South Africa. It also permeates international news reports, with conflict in Iraq just one obvious example. The work of Johannesburg-based printmaker Paul Emmanuel, which draws upon issues of power both local and global, therefore offers a timely critique for viewers.
Emmanuel says: 'My life experience of living and growing up in Johannesburg has been formed by what's gone on in this country � South Africa is in a very interesting spot at the moment'. He adds: 'I believe men in general are having to re-evaluate their identities � My life experiences are being formed by that. I don't fit into the normal way men are 'supposed' to operate. I think my work is about that, simply put.'
That said, Emmanuel more effectively explores these themes in works like The Lost Men exhibited at the recent Grahamstown Festival. This installation comprised sheets of voile and silk suspended like washing on three lines. On closer inspection, they revealed pigment prints of different parts of the artist's naked body blind-embossed with the names of men who died in the historical frontier wars.
This work succinctly made its point with a winning combination of subtle presence and hard-hitting message. 'After-image', at the US Gallery, includes two large pigment prints documenting The Lost Men, which become artworks in their own right. However, they lack the same impact as the real thing.
The showstopper is an awesome monumental work (five by two metres) from which the exhibition derives its name. after-image depicts an open field in the Sterkfontein archaeological site north of Johannesburg, with a discarded soldier's uniform lying in the long grass.
Emmanuel exposed photographic paper and then obsessively scratched away with a fine steel blade to describe this landscape in a vast range of sensitive tones. It is impressive in scale and precision and unsurprisingly took six months to complete.
The size is quite a shift. Emmanuel usually works on a much smaller, more intimate scale to create jewel-like pieces. He says: 'The idea is the same but the concept is a little richer because of the photographic emulsion and the idea of light ... capturing that moment'.
The image of Sterkfontein is in turn derived from a photograph taken by the artist, so the work is really an image of an image. Emmanuel says: 'I wanted to make an image that worked with the way light falls on an object � to do something like drawing with light.'
Professor Keith Deitrich, of Stellenbosch University Fine Art department, said at the exhibition's opening, 'The uniform speaks powerfully of absence and loss ... The mapping of the body over the landscape, and the landscape as a place of struggle, are metaphorically embedded in this image.'
At first, the power of After-image lies more in its technical skill than its metaphorical meaning. However, technique in itself does become more significant as one contemplates the work. Emmanuel fetches his subject matter from a darker, less conscious place, scratches it repeatedly with an obsessive but sensitive touch and brings it into sharp focus.
In the adjoining two rooms, the show includes copperplate etchings from Emmanuel's Sleep Series and Vault of Breath, while Twelve Phases of Orange imbues the unpeeling of a humble fruit with a reverential aura.
In the centre of the space, with After-image looming in the background, is a finely crafted artist's book, nine years in the making. Cathexis is a limited edition of eight. The exhibition copy is unfortunately under glass, which frustrates the desire to flip through the pages.
Cathexis is a psychological term that deals with transference between closely held objects and people. The book is a hand-made collection of Emmanuel's etchings and lithographs, some of which are painted by the artist. It also includes texts contributed by 12 writers who have all impacted upon Emmanuel's life.
Emmanuel's consummate skill and strong individual style provide a pleasurable viewing experience. However, the disparate works are quite self-contained and the conceptual element lacks the punch to bring them all together into a cohesive whole.
The presentation of 'After-image' is well considered and the venue apt. Emmanuel's work is often described as spiritual and the US Gallery is an old Lutheran church. Emmanuel says it also fits in well with ideas of patriarchy, the history of Stellenbosch and where it is now: 'I think my work has a particular relevance and connection with that, in some sort of way.'
August 3 - 26