Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town
05.11.2016 – 26.11.2016
Josie Grindrod’s ‘Last Light’ is an exhibition of impressions. Framed by TS Eliot’s Landscape: New Hampshire, it presents a collection of nearly 100 paintings and prints which, like the poem, read as vivid fragments strung together by an irregular meter. Nearly six years in the making, the body of work follows a cast of recurring characters through the real and remembered landscapes of Grindrod’s life. Most often these are the wide, green gardens of her childhood home in KZN. Where Eliot’s pastoral imagery is coloured by sentiment, however, Grindrod’s recollections have a sharper edge. Not all land is hospitable. Memories can sting.
The show riffs off a central photograph, Fête Champêtre: The Referent (2007), in which seven children play on a manicured lawn. A boy and girl in the immediate foreground are white, while the others, mostly stationed further back, are black. Although easy to dismiss as simply descriptive, the work’s title references a theme in European genre painting of the 18th century or so: the garden party or open-air picnic. Despite their bucolic surroundings the figures of fête champêtre scenes have a lingering air of artificiality about them; they’re stiff and formal to the point of silliness. Grindrod’s snapshot has something of the same choreographed quality, the children’s play made stagey by the closing shutter. Preserved at an angle that extends it to the distant hills, the garden is vast and idyllic. There are no other houses in sight.
The artist returns to this referent again and again as though picking at a scab. The scene is dismantled (Fête Champêtre: A Fantasy), its spatial orientation confused and its anatomy laid bare (Fête Champêtre: Translation) and the distance between its subjects collapsed as though the children play still, and with greater fluidity (Fête Champêtre: Dusk). Collectively these images signal a kind of anxiety, with the artist obsessively working through her memory as if to untether it from its fixed image or even reanimate it. It isn’t only the moment that’s dissected, though – it’s the landscape, which splinters as if under enormous pressure. Still recognisable but alien, the space refuses untroubled contemplation.
In a country as pathologically unequal as ours, imaged land has its own affective charge. Landscape always does, refracted as it is through the socio-political and the subjective. It’s precisely because it’s invested with so much feeling that landscape is also an instrument of cultural power. WJT Mitchell calls its documentation the “dreamwork of imperialism,” structuring a perspective – from perspectiva, to see not into but through– that prescribes a way of being in and with the world. Grindrod’s formal gardens have been groomed and humanised according to a particular set of aesthetic norms. Coupled with the colonial underpinnings of fête champêtre, they testify to power mapped onto space where both the power and the space are personal. That’s an uneasy entanglement. Prompted by it, I think the question running through much of ‘Last Light’ is a hard one: how to depict an intimate, embodied relationship to land when that land is, in so many respects, a figment of the white South African imagination.
Part of the artist’s answer is to explore that imagination from a personal vantage point, and in the process measure the depth of her own nostalgia. It’s a tactic best served by those works that don’t shy away from the political connotations of her subject. The gardens of her home play a primary role in this. Grindrod revisits those rolling lawns in something like an exorcism, the mood fluctuating with each painting from the sentimental to the sinister. Some smaller, interconnected series of images (of which there are many) hone in on this ambient tension by anchoring it to named space. In Her Father’s Land, Willowstream Park, KZN I- III (2011- 2016), for example, the shift in tone occurs abruptly between three monotypes. From one to the next, a hillside darkens as though a storm is building somewhere just out of frame. In the third, the wide open space has compressed into a dark, claustrophobic interior. It’s disorienting.
At her best, the artist paints with barely-contained violence, wrestling with form, seeing it blur and resolve itself, muddying colour, cutting and tearing at her ground. The works require almost no visual cues to convey mood, only subtle changes in colour and light. To me, Grindrod’s weaker moments occur when the relationship to her subject is too close and as a consequence, the looking too narrow. The portraits – mainly of the artist’s own children but also the children of friends and labourers on her family’s land – are particularly susceptible. Their faces, almost always isolated, are sensitively handled, but this tenderness seems evasive without signifiers to locate each face in relation to the fraught landscapes on all sides. What aren’t we seeing about the ties between the subjects, or between child and artist? What equivalences are assumed, true or fabricated, when these anonymous children are collected together in a gallery? There’s a power dynamic there, a history, belied by soft, evocative titles like L’Enfant Bleue (2010) and Listening Child (2016). Tunnel-vision is a risk in all work that flirts with nostalgia, no matter how self-reflexive, and several portraits make this apparent. Tunnel-vision is also a risk in any work made out of love, of course, glossing over the parts of a place or a person we don’t want to see.
‘Last Light’ is undoubtedly a labour of love but it isn’t blind to its own romanticism. Land, we’re reminded, is subject to a moral and political darkness that is bigger than personal experience. And in indulging an intimate attachment to that land, we mustn’t become complacent about what is veiled and naturalised by deep feeling. The writer Svetlana Boym calls the friction between longing and wariness the imperative of any contemporary nostalgic: “to be homesick and to be sick of being at home—occasionally at the same time.”