SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
Our attempt to write about Barend de Wet’s ‘Black, White and Everything In-Between’ was near-catastrophically derailed by musical dilly-dallying. We were doing field work at SMAC the day before the exhibition opening when Shona, the obliging gallerina, mentioned that one artwork Opera, White Bread and Methylated Spirits, which was to be displayed in a room all of its own, would be accompanied by an operatic soundtrack. We took this off-hand remark as an invitation, and bedded down on SMAC’S art-deco couches to jot down a shortlist of arias.
This detour began with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro but veered sharply into Erik Satie, Thelonious Monk and Ella Fitzgerald. De Wet graciously welcomed our participation and gave us carte blanche, and after a few hours of sheer delight we had devised a musical accompaniment to Opera, White Bread and Methylated Spirits and unintentionally found a sonic lexicon to enrich the work.
Opera, White Bread and Methylated Spirits deals with the practice of pouring meths through white bread, thereby filtering the solvent and making it drinkable. It is an installation composed of an assortment of inedible steel loaves, rolls, baguettes, buns and boules that seemingly levitate; a vision that reminded us of protozoal creatures a-wash in the marine depths. These sculptures are displayed in a pitch-black room intermittently lit by ultra-violet spotlights which isolate the bread, and give it a deathly methylated violet glow that hints at danger and the supernatural.
Despite its otherworldliness, the work alludes to a life-threatening street practice expressive of surrender and despair. Opera’s euphonic protestations and laments, Monk’s heart-stopping piano with its constant shifts in key, rhythm, pace and Ella’s brilliantly improvised skat all force the surreal emotionality, that is so rigidly suppressed in the sculptural ensemble, out into the open and endow it with a far more overt theatricality and romanticism. Our modest contribution epitomizes De Wet’s love of collaboration and the magic that chance and random interventions may bestow upon a work.
In the past, little of De Wet’s opus possessed an explicitly political bent, and he often appeared more concerned with situating himself within a political landscape than commenting on it. Suddenly ‘Black White and Everything In-Between’ ushers in a new gravitas, and replaces Barend’s occasional self-indulgence and narcissism with deep social concern. Take the first artwork that you encounter on entering the gallery for example: a live female nude standing on a plinth, wearing a dress made only of geometric fragments held together by cable ties.
The additional cable ties and fragments strewn on the floor were immediately seized upon by children who eagerly devised a train for her ‘dress’ which immediately recalled the absurd Dadaist outfits worn by Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire, at a time when all established values appeared to have collapsed, as is the case here and now. The imposing young woman – a piece of living sculpture in the Gilbert and George tradition – asserted an heraldic presence, and functioned as an allegorical representation of South Africa, our version of England personified as Britannia or the U.S.A. as the Statue of Liberty. However our motherland is seen in a state of disintegration as her sculpted couture is a mere flotsam and jetsam of smashed shards. This striptease act and lively audience participation ensured that, lickety-split, the entire show leapt into ebullient life.
Behind her hung a fractured target of concentric circles in black and white that hark back to Kenneth Noland and Jasper Johns, but carry an entirely different meaning concerned with urban violence, self-protection, gang warfare, protest action, Marikana, guns, weapons and warfare. The titles of these target metal wall pieces all denote mundane, habitual actions: Walk the Dog and Milk the Cow, establishing violence as a part of normal daily life.
The show concluded with another performance. A small fire was lit on the deck and into it Barend deposited tiny effigies of easels and paintings; a reference to the burning of artworks at UCT by Rhodes Must Fall and a burnt offering of minutiae designed to propitiate a monochromatic deity. The statement that even when art is destroyed, it is nevertheless made, is an affirmation of creative resilience.
On the most literal level, the title ‘Black, White & Everything In-Between’, emphasizes the elimination of color which always imparted such a festive air to De Wet’s previous work. The exhibition booklet and fliers, executed in yellow, green, blue and violet, are red herrings. They imply joyous brightness, but the parson-like ascetic palette of black and white that De Wet relies on throughout the exhibition, is absolute and binary.
The unfettered freedom and anarchic wildness of the artist’s imagination make themselves strongly felt, but one dimension is absent, and that absence results in extreme sensory deprivation. The absence of color creates a strangely unreal alternative world far more abstract, rarified, stark, sober and severe than anything De Wet has created hitherto. There is a sense of Lenten abstinence as he finally lays rainbowism to rest, and freely admits that our society is ideologically, racially and economically polarized, and that we are on the verge of revolution, or a slump into a lawless rentier state.
Most of the sculptural reliefs on the walls remain abstract with jagged serrations that continually pick up on the themes of violence and aggression. Despite the calamitous overtones, De Wet’s waggishness remains, and the forms, although indefinable, seem defiantly alive and ticking. They suggest all sorts of mechanomorphic and zoomorphic parallels to Miro’s wriggly-squiggly carnival menageries.
The artworks exist in a process of evolution rather than in their finished state. Essentially they are maquettes for far more ambitious creations that could extend to infinity were they not confined within the gallery. The paper scroll covered in thick black squiggles concludes in two huge spools of paper which could unravel forever. Growing organisms capable of rapid, invasive self-propagation seem to be the inspiration behind the Black is Black suite of modular sculptures which can be added onto ad infinitum so that – theoretically- they could cover the entire planet. Furthermore nothing is any one thing, everything performs double, or even triple duty. The sails of the boats – metaphoric ships of state- floundering as they lose all sense of direction, contract measles or turn into cacti, or a puff of smoke. The sinister trio of hooded Klu Klux Klan figures turn into variants of Siennese dugento rockscapes as do the strange jelly-fish-like black creatures in the hidden half of the main hall where the battle rages both on land and sea.
An entire wall is devoted to posters advertising many of De Wet’s earlier exhibitions, and looking at them, and remembering what one saw, one not only feels the clutch of nostalgia, but also suddenly intuits how, despite its hectic multifariousness, De Wet’s oeuvre is essentially one. As the memories and ghosts of all the works, performances and interventions that we once beheld, come trouping back into the gallery from the past, we immediately understand how De Wet’s entire corpus evolved out of the student work that he did at Michaelis.
A final practical note from the pedant: when working with chromatic absolutes, any small deviation causes the eye to snag and ultimately distracts from the conceptual weight of the work. A muddy paw print, an unpainted shard of wood or a lick of enamel that peels back to reveal a previous coat of paint occasionally ruin the immersion. These little oversights remind the viewer that they are not in a fantastical Lewis-Carolesque chessboard world. They prevent Barend’s fantasies from enacting themselves in all their glory and transcending the confines of the Gallery.