Matt Hindley at 34Long
by Lloyd Pollack
'Before my Time' pivots around imperilled females. Matthew Hindley's prototypical subject is a Janus-faced child-woman who conflates a whole shuffle of archetypes. She is the incarnation of wronged innocence, a hapless victim embroiled in scenarios of duress and martyrdom. But this saint is also a seductress, a painted nymphet brazenly flaunting her charms in the skimpiest attire. Love-bites bruise her neck and her somewhat jaded expression implies erotic expertise.
Although no vestal, the set-ups clearly imply that the women were not complicit in their sexual initiation. The paintings insinuate violation and abuse, for although men are completely absent, devouring lust is omnipresent. Aggressive male sexual drives are divorced from their real source, man, and universalised as an abstract force that inheres in the landscape. Hindley's maidens negotiate a terrain where the rampant male member - in the guise of stout tree trunks and thick branches - continually heaves out at them so that nature itself becomes the instrument of their seduction and slaughter. In Killing Time, a bulging tumescent tree-trunk, with boughs that drip and bleed, crowns the landscape. Severed female heads are impaled like trophies upon the branches of this leafy scalp-hunter. The all-seeing eyes of God materialise in the form of beady pupils embedded in clouds and they survey the proceedings with sadistic relish.
XXX Fu X enacts itself in a paranoiac ambience of sexual fright and paralysis. A terrified mother and daughter cling to each other as they recoil from an encircling thicket of rigid, pole-like tree trunks studded with stubby penile fruits. A phallic menagerie of serpents and horned quadrupeds reinforces this scrum. Menacing phallic symbols - burning candles, hatchets and daggers - are strewn amidst the grass. In other paintings such as Ship of Fools they rain down from heaven like manifestations of the divine will.
These victimised women often resort to black magic in order to deflect the conquistatorial libinal force embedded in the earth, flora and fauna. A rude altar decked with an axe and a serpent hacked in two occurs amidst other sinister paraphernalia in XXX Fu X, while in Stay Away the victim has changed face and become a scheming, manipulative victrix. With a cigarette plugged into her lipsticked mouth, this confident booted sorceress clad in a kinky and vaporous shred of a dress presides over an altar decked with bones. The tumescent snake coiled submissively around her leg implies that she has subjugated male desire and exploited it to advance her own ends.
Such strategies cannot but fail, for Hindley's women are trapped in a misogynist universe that dooms them to perdition. In Over Time and The Girls want to be with the Girls, Hindley portrays his tainted damsels calmly submitting themselves to martyrdom. The sacrificial victim in Over Time projects a composite identity. Although clad in a flimsy red dress that brands her as a Scarlet Woman, other attributes suggest a penitent Magdalene. Her veiled head and partially shaven scalp liken her to a neophyte in some religious order. Nails tear through her shoulder strap and pierce her flesh introducing masochistic overtones of mortification of the flesh. However it is evident that no penitence and atonement will ever wring forgiveness from an implacable deity.
This ritual scapegoat stands in a dark shadowy landscape where a lake and mountains rise balefully beneath a slate-grey sky. A livid beam pours like a spotlight over her head facilitating the task of the three parties of torch-bearing skeletons who are setting out to find her. The sky glowers with apocalyptic luminary portents of doom. Sulphurous clouds drift past hugely enlarged planets and stars, and a comet - a common biblical portent of imminent catastrophe - hurtles above. A burning Gothic castle and fire raining down from the heavens recall Sodom and Gomorrah, and the girl's petrified appearance and turned head evoke Lot's wife changing into a pillar of salt.
The Girls Want to Be with the Girls centres upon another target of divine wrath in the form of an imperturbably serene nymphet set in a dark volcanic nether world and surrounded by battalions of skeletons in military formation who prepare to advance upon her. The light appears to be that of hellfire: the site, the valley of the shadow of death; the skeletons, the dead awakening; and the theme, the Last Judgement.
Doomsday narratives inform almost every work. In Killing Time, a deceased woman sits up abruptly in her grave as she returns to life. Another weeps tears of blood as she is engulfed by rising waters in an untitled etching inspired by the Great Flood. Although the quick and the dead commune in an idyllic setting in That's the Story of My Life, the blazing apocalyptic sky, the burning village and Gothic castle, and the symbols of corruption and decay - snake, candles, skulls, flies, mice and worm-ridden fruit - suggest this is the calm before the storm. The banderol that threads its way around the protagonists, like the title, implies some kind of conclusive assessment. However this Renaissance device intended to pronounce some verdict in the form of a biblical quotation or popular adage, is purposefully left blank. This strips it of its conventional raison d'etre and suggests that the protagonists discern no meaning in the world they inhabit.
Hindley's imagery is saturated with reminiscences of catholic altarpieces, martyrdoms and apocalyptic acts of divine punishment like the great flood and the Last Judgement. His portrayal of the cosmos as an infernal machine is pushed to such a point of nightmarish exaggeration that the sublime cedes to the ridiculous. Our reaction is no longer dread but an enthralled frisson of spooky and charming mock horror for Hindley expresses sacred themes in a frolicsome language of fantasy and caprice. This burlesque melange of Hammer horror and 'Loony Tunes' becomes a therapeutic tool overcoming the morbid obsession with guilt, sin, sexuality and divine punishment that is so often the by-product of religion. 'Before My Time' is an act of exorcism that frees us from prohibitive taboos, repressions and inhibitions by satirising the puritanical hellfire and brimstone fanaticism that is enjoying such a spectacular resurgence in the hands of fundamentalists of all persuasions.
Hindley is a fantasist. He ushers us into a habitat of wonder and delight, a realm as newly minted as the jungles of Henri Douanier Rousseau. And, like the French customs-officer, Hindley documents his extraordinary findings with wide-eyed incredulity and scrupulous precision. His paintings defy logic and causality and abound in Surrealist hey-diddle-diddle. Ship's masts break into branches and leaves; scandalously pink and penile snakes infest the skies and daisies sprout forth from fried fish. There is no fixed chronological frame of reference. Hindley often seems inspired by vague recollections of the hoariest of northern Gothic themes like Walpurgisnacht, the Dance of Death and the Ship of Fools. His work breathes strong Medieval overtones and often recalls Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Breughel and other great late Gothic visionaries. His taste for woodland and lakeside settings aglow with spectacular lights recalls Altdorfer and the Danube school. There are hints of Ensor and, as the atmosphere veers from fairytale to macabre, both Goya and the brothers Grimm are grist to Hindley's mill.
Illustrated children's books, comics, cartoons, puppets and toys are a major source of inspiration and Hindley's bright, clear and crisp colours create an immaculately spick and span land of Nod. Trees are stylised into perfectly cylindrical trunks bursting into spherical orbs of green dotted with globular red fruit. Flowers obey the rules and keep their stalks straight as they present themselves in spruce, symmetric formations. The ghosts wearing sheets and peeping out of eyehole slits, and the endearingly clumsy, bumbling skeletons are redolent of playroom and toy town rather than the graveyard. Even the serpent has escaped from the Snakes and Ladders games-board rather than Eden's undergrowth. This is a pop-up book world of play-play and pretend where Hindley's wacky sense of humour continually makes itself felt in whimsical touches like frothy ectoplasmic hosiery worn by his gussied-up lady ghosts. Even in the afterlife, spooks, like the dapper man-about-town sporting jacket and cane in As Tears Go By, retain their human failings of vanity and swank.
Hindley's prancing cadavers, skeletons, saints and spectres form a rollicking Coney island of the afterlife, a Disneyland orchestrated by the Grim Reaper and Old Nick. His metaphysical slapstick liberates us from the repressive clasp of conventional religion, and provides a revised gospel that affirms human freedom and autonomy. Funky visual contrivances and an exhilarating sense of fun bring a welcome blast of fresh air to our art environment which so often degenerates into the dour issue-driven solemnity that prevailed at Michael Stevenson's survey 'South African Art Now'. The painter mercifully avoids this deadly seriousness, repudiates all socio-political concerns, and remembers that the artist's first duty is to construct compelling imagery. Matthew Hindley honours this rule and delivers such spellbinding visual delight that one can only applaud him as one of the country's most captivating and original young talents.
Opened: November 14
Closed: December 9, 2006
34 Long Street, Cape Town
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