David Krut Projects, Johannesburg
I have watched much of Mary Wafer’s development from the sidelines, since I first saw her work on show around the Johannesburg scene. Her large-scale, thinly-applied paintings of highway bridges and underpasses were imbued with a sense of contemporary urban anxiety, a nervousness about the speed of contemporary life and the massiveness of the structures (both physical and organisational) that informed our interactions with one another.
But something troubled me about the works. It was their blankness; the anonymity of their concrete surfaces seemed distinctly un-Johannesburg. Instead, they looked European: brutally pristine, untouched by graffiti and the pox of half-removed bills that plague these liminal spaces. Wafer’s works felt like a fiction, a construct of blankness when one’s experience of the urban space was so dramatically different.
Nonetheless, there is something in the way that Wafer paints that interests me. Her sense of economy seems like a conscious step away from the influence of one of her mentors, Penny Siopis, whose ‘more is more’ ethos has exerted too wide an influence on young SA painters who mistake its conceptual underpinnings for a validation of visual self-indulgence. Wafer has evolved to have her own voice within the landscape of young South African painters.
Michael Smith: Mary, your latest show at David Krut Projects in Parkwood, Johannesburg, explores ideas around police brutality and its history within SA. The works are almost all near-abstract renderings of the exterior of John Vorster Square. What interested you about this relic from Apartheid’s darkest days?
Mary Wafer: I suppose I’m interested in how little has changed about the police force. Sure, the name was changed from the SA Police Force to the SA Police Services; but the history of police brutality seems to be a constant, irrespective of who’s in power. I went snooping around the building a number of times, looking for a sense of it, trying to pin down the feelings it gives. And there is a real sense that time has stood still in there, that the ‘banality of evil’ is still palpable: brown carpets and aging desks, half-dead pot plants, the broken blinds that feature so strongly in my paintings. Once, when I stopped my car across the road to take some photos of the exterior, a threatening-looking cop started walking towards me, and with my heart racing, I jumped into the car a drove off! Like it was still apartheid days!
MS: You don’t seem to buy into the notion that the past is over, do you? I mean, this work comes in the wake of your 2013 show Mine about the Marikana massacre; are you drawing a link?
MW: I’m trying to find a space where it’s possible to erase a line, both visually and conceptually. People seem very compelled to draw lines, around how things were, how they are now, and how they should be. But actually, real life is a lot fuzzier than that. It’s kind of like, the closer you get to a line, the more diffuse it gets.
Wafer’s works on this show teeter on the edge of disappearing completely into voids of black. She quotes Mark Rothko as a primary influence; this is clearly evident in the immersive qualities of her works when one stands in front of them. But I also see Ad Reinhardt, with his so-called ‘last paintings,’ swathes of barely-differentiated black pulsing like dark secrets. Like both Rothko and Reinhardt, Wafer’s works demand attention, an obsessive scanning across the surfaces for clues to decode. This level of demand is increasingly rare in work by young South African painters, amid the rush to appeal to corporate buyers with inoffensive, gutsy-by-numbers surfaces that often bespeak very little of substance below.
As with Reinhardt, there’s a minimalist impulse.
MS: The works give very little away. What informs this obscuring of detail, of the paint beginning to swallow the image?
MW: I’m interested in having as little of the image described in a traditional sense. It’s a kind of economy. I’m trying to get at a feeling, a raw feeling which doesn’t work with too much illustrative painting. Having said that, the etchings on the show (numerous works titled Johannesburg Central Police Station, hardground etching and aquatint) came out almost photographically.
MS: Tell me about the process of arriving at the final work: from start to finish. You order your canvases from Winsen’s… [a go-to canvas supplier for practicing artists in Johannesburg]
MW: Exactly right! I don’t prime, they come already primed. [Shows iPhone photos of source material: disarmingly anonymous pictures of the building’s exterior. Scrolls to images of blank painting surface covered in a network of masking tape strips.] I tape up the various areas, and then begin applying Winsor and Newton Ivory Black, slowly building it up. I definitely cover and obscure parts, as the painting demands, but I don’t make things up: all the components that remain in the final work are in the right places, and are the right sizes. So there is a faithfulness there. But sometimes I’ll push the image too far…
MS: And then? Do you paint over it?
MW: No, it gets hidden in the storeroom with all the other failures.
ARTsouthAFRICA is putting out a new issue with the provocative title, ‘Painting’s Not Dead.’ This is another step in the continual back-and-forth argument about the the value of painting.
MW: As a painter, (because one always seems to feel the need to self-identify as a painter), statements like that make no sense whatsoever!
MS: It’s very strange, this weird need to perpetually acknowledge the medium’s fraught history, apologise for it, reclaim it and then only begin working: as if some sort of perfect state of production, free of political inequities, was possible…
MW: …or even desirable! For me, that’s part of the appeal of painting, or the role of it: to participate in a conversation on the fraught nature of contemporary life.
MS: I argue a lot with my Facebook friends about the impossibility of this kind of ‘state of grace’…
MW: …and it’s not necessary to even aspire to that nirvana. I mean, with my work, I don’t want to be trying to say the last word on a subject. I want to be having a part of a bigger conversation. In this case, and with the previous body of work (Mine), I’m interested in institutionalised violence, how violence becomes simply part of the way the system operates.
MS: I’m quite keen to talk about how this body of work keys into recent debates about the removal of monuments, renaming of streets, etc. Given those drives, shouldn’t a building like John Vorster Square be demolished for what it embodies?
MW: Well, it’s much easier to remove the obvious signifiers, like the Rhodes statue. It’s an intentional sign of dominance. But what interests me is the idea that we’re actually surrounded by monuments to a terrible past: these kinds of buildings are part of the fabric of our city life. It’s an embedded history. The building, which I drive past twice a day on my way to and from work, is almost… malignant.