15.10.2016 – 19.11.2016
The title of ‘Reopening ‘Plato’s Cave’: The Legacy of Kevin Atkinson’ at SMAC Stellenbosch seems to suggest a comprehensive, chronological retrospective of Atkinson’s work. Marilyn Martin – the exhibition’s curator – points out that this is not the case however, and that the exhibition is instead a personal selection of the paintings, drawings, works on paper and other indefinable curiosa, that she and her co-curator, Jo-Anne Duggan, deemed to be his most effective and inspired works; mainly date from the 70’s when the artist reached his peak. The copiously illustrated catalogue acts as an adjunct to the exhibition reproducing works from the late 50’s to the early 2000’s.
Kevin Atkinson was a challenging, charismatic and mind-blowing teacher who adopted an entirely unorthodox approach. He challenged everything his students did and said in an effort to develop their own personal vision – rather than concerning himself with what they actually painted – and this focus on process rather than product dominated his oeuvre during the 70’s. Through such Socratic interrogation, Atkinson served as a beacon of inspiration to his acolytes many of whom have contributed to the as yet unpublished, incomplete catalogue, a mock-up of which I filched from the gallery. Haydon Proud, that maniacal Mandarin perfectionist, has spent three years writing his contribution which is still not complete, although eagerly awaited, as hopefully it will serve as a withering corrective to the hagiographic and uncritical bias of the existing texts. Atkinson’s adoring coterie of worshippers hail him as a mystic, a visionary, a shaman and a seer, However I found ample intellectual and visual satisfaction in the work on display without having to make a leap of faith, and place credence in such woolly notions of transcendental breakthroughs into some misty divine beyond.
Atkinson is hard to pin down. The man was not one, but many, as he, and his thinking constantly evolved as did his style, formats and media. He travelled widely, exposed himself to Op and Land art, Colour Field Painting, Conceptualism, Minimalism and Performance and completely escaped the provincialism and parochialism which kept so much of our art mired in the bog of the imitative, yet incompletely digested and understood. In his best work, Atkinson escaped the limitations of time and place, and achieved an art that was far ahead of his time. As his ex-student Marlene Dumas remarks, Atkinson was a post-modernist before the term had been coined. Foreign visitors to the recent Johannesburg Art Fair could not believe that the Atkinsons were executed decades ago because of their bang up-to-date contemporaneity.
But let’s start at the beginning. The first thing that struck me was the overwhelming thwack of his work and his incontestable brilliance as a colourist. This emerges most resplendently from his hard-edge geometric paintings like Blue Triangle which I loved on first sight, until I realized that I responded to the work of Hannetjie van der Watt, Trevor Colman and Cecily Sash with similar enthusiasm, and that thousands of artists round the world were producing very similar and equally beautiful paintings.
Perusing the catalogue I also succumbed to the looseness, freedom and vigour of his enormous, richly-textured, splurgy abstracts celebrated for their pyrotechnic hues and the furious gestural energy of his volcanic eruptions of paint that explode like a grenade of vivid high-key hues superimposed upon each other, so that each intensifies the impact of the other. Here the brush moves as restlessly as a caged tiger, leaving sweeps, splashes, zigzags and great dollops of pigment on the surface, as well as wild graffiti-like tags that clearly anticipate the Bronx Hip Hop revolution of the early 70’s.
The various influences that contributed to their making also poured into the highlight of the exhibition, the so-called ‘arena’ paintings dating from a very brief, but intense, period during the 70’s. Firstly there is the fiercely expressive and thick slushy impasto of COBRA seen in the work of Karel Appel and Pierre Alechinsky, who too were votaries of the free expression of the unconscious, unobstructed by intellectual intervention, and the potency of mystical symbols flowing directly out of the unconscious. One can equate such artists with their American counterparts, and the action painting of Jackson Pollock. The leading American critics of the day, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg championed it, and insisted that the physical act of painting should become the actual subject of the painting as so often it does in the oeuvre of de Kooning, Pollock and later, Atkinson whose work too emphasizes the painterly, and often provides a record of its own genesis.
Then came yet another revelation, personal contact with Joseph Beuys and that font of cerebral brilliance, Marcel Duchamp. Both were dangerous influences, inspiring far more bad art than good, and paving the way for the “anything goes” aesthetic that they would entirely reject. Beuys transformed Atkinson into a mystagogue and hierophant attempting to illustrate “the spiritual laws of the universe” and embarking upon “creative journeys into universal time-space’ where he entered “the arena of ancestral realms” through “ecstatic trance” to quote the cringe-inducing prose of one contributor to the catalogue. As an atheist and rationalist, I refuse to have any truck with such pie-in-the-sky poppycock, and would maintain that despite his obscurantist Theosophical mysticism, Atkinson completely assimilated all the movements I have mentioned, and in some cases surpassed their exponents in the sheer smash, bang and wallop of the ‘arena’ paintings.
It was in this body of work that Atkinson found his own unique voice, rather than producing supremely virtuosic specimens of all the currently fashionable –isms. The Arena works astound through the spontaneity and dash of the artist’s virile mark-making, and his deft manipulation of universal symbols which actually do communicate the incommunicable through resort to Jungian archetypes that often date back thousands of years to pre-history and the caveman, and thus form part of the collective unconscious of all mankind. The symbol is by its very nature polyvalent, and it adds rich layers of meaning to the ‘arena’ paintings which Atkinson seems to have conceived of as gladiatorial combats between the canvas, the brush, the actions of his wrist and the workings of his own unconscious. Paintings such as Ritual Arena (1) are stormy and turbulent essays in black white and grey, and provide a record of some deep-seated and heroic internal struggle to achieve order, balance and equilibrium, both psychological and aesthetic. Wholeness was always his goal and he achieved it in art, if not always in life.