Jill Trappler at the Gardens Presbyterian Church
by Tambudzai La Verne Sibanda
With a large body of work ranging from paintings to structural forms, Jill Trappler's style is steeped in the tradition of weaving, a practice that has been well cultivated over generations all over the world. It is the rich palette of colours and patterned motifs found on various textiles all over the world that Trappler has chosen to draw on as a stimulus for her creative process. 'Studio Conversation' marks the first time that Trappler has ever shown such an extensive collection of work, making it almost a mid-career retrospective. She invites viewers to journey with her into 25 years of spirited conversations, rich relationships and the ebb and flow of a colourful and full life. The exhibition provides a comprehensive, albeit non-chronological, record of the transformation and metamorphosis of Trappler's work over two decades.
An unapologetic colourist, Trappler has consistently used paint to build texture and convey various emotions that have characterised her own life experiences. Her visual poems do not follow a linear trajectory, and to simply claim that the development of her work reflects increasing maturity would be to negate the wealth of her earlier experiences with abstraction. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Trappler's work has always been mature in its attempt to explore new possibilities, new techniques and pigments. The artist's shift in sensibilities from a dominant use of abstraction as an emerging artist, to greater use of the figure as a reference in her mature years, has given her work great range. From her interrogations of the complexity of loss and memory, to more simple explorations of the texture and colour of cultural rituals and mundane objects, Trappler's work has always been marked by energy and passion.
In her Reverberation Series Trappler's aggressive mesh of string and canvas tells a story of the exuberance of sounds accompanying complex traditional rituals. Although the artist insists that she avoids even the simplest use of metaphor, her work is clearly embedded in layers of memories, both personal and borrowed from various artistic and cultural practices around the world. Choosing to order her work into thematic series, Trappler attempts to offer a more complete story of her experiences, although her intentional avoidance of titles lends mystery and ambiguity to the work.
This mystery as well as a sense of the insubstantiality of life is evident in the tiw series in which Trappler constructs life-size garments woven from strips of vibrantly coloured canvas. The collection of crude dresses hangs from the wall, creased and stained with the experiences and personalities of their owners. The movements she captures in these garments tell of the vitality of specific women known to the artist. Although the work is highly individual, it has a universal relevance in its strong reference to the complexities of the feminine life. Despite the deliberate use of vibrant colours, the garments, which form skeletons of human personalities, speak of absence and loss.
The female form is for Trappler a source of great inspiration and in her woman series she uses large rectangular boards bound with convoluted pieces of canvas. On a superficial level this makes reference to the life force of the umbilical cord and fallopian tube. The series is very sculptural and the works placed alongside each other resemble cultural totem poles, inviting the viewer to participate in some form of reflection or act of worship. The pieces are performative in that they allow the viewer to feel the movement and energy that the artist experienced in her creative process. Using the border of her paintings to contain her narratives, Trappler views each canvas as a separate package of experiences and stories. As a body of work her colourful canvases read like a patchwork landscape, fragmented, but unified by a similar reference to pattern and mark.
Informed by a keen understanding of design, Trappler shows great concern for mark and line in a way that is somewhat deliberate and controlled; in her Incantation series however, the artist allows her medium to assume its own rhythm on the canvas - a frantic riot of lines creates a fierce energy. The varying strength of line creates different narratives. The Jetty series tells a simple story of gently fading memories by a lake. The artist's playful use of dots in the vibrant sunshine yellow of Harvest lead the viewer down a humorous, light and almost childlike path of discovery and dance. Her work is as much organic and free as it is marked by a distinct directive voice that is both confident and courageous.
Retrospective exhibitions are unique in the way they are instrumental in rewriting history. Unlike many of her contemporaries who are more explicitly a product of their time, having chosen to engage directly with the struggle in their art practice during apartheid, Trappler fights for freedom in a unique way. Despite obvious criticism that her work and subject matter were insensitive to the harsh realities of apartheid, Trappler in this mid-career exhibition frees herself from the baggage of 'struggle' and unashamedly contributes to a different conversation. Her collection of work produced pre-independence tells a story of landscapes, energy, and ordinary people and the fierce aggression and resilience they possessed in a time of unrest. Through a strong focus on design, Trappler depicts garments, mundane objects and landscapes worn and stained by life itself. Through a provocative display of colour she celebrates the vicissitudes of life while leaning on the consistent changes of textile designs that have characterised robust cultures in Nigeria, Australia and South Africa for millennia. People come and go but there are memories that we can hold on to. Even within the smaller narratives of life the artist looks to celebrate a sense of dignity and importance.
Contextualising this eclectic collection of work in an old church in Cape Town's Orange Street, Trappler invites the viewer to appreciate the sacredness of her work and creative process. Her colourful offerings that are personal translations of incantations and verses that have marked textile-making for centuries, become acts of worship to a power that transcends the artist. Churches are traditionally spaces of convergence, of vulnerability where men and women are invited to laugh and shed tears over broken lives. For Trappler, her work is the private offering of a full and dynamic life. The sheer presence and weight of the works begs the viewer to dive into the compositions and engage with them emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Due to the broad mix of work on display creating various rhythms and conversations within one exhibition, this show demands a sensitive curator who can invite the viewer to linger at various points in the space. 'Studio Conversation' reads like a complete anthology - the work is meaningful, full and decadent, with the artist wringing so much emotion out of each mark and brushstroke that it is evident that the creative process is exhausting and overwhelming in itself. Like any wholesome meal, this body of work should be approached with ease and time to be fully satisfying.
Tambudzai La Verne Sibanda is a UCT graduate and currently manages
Greatmore Studios in Cape Town
Opens: July 8
Closes: July 20
Orange Street Studio
Gardens Presbyterian Church, Orange Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1865
Hours: Mon - Sat 11am - 3pm (or by appointment)