SMITH, Cape Town
23.02 – 25.03.2017
‘Trail’ is a romantic and ephemeral offering of paper and canvas works that loosely describe vegetation. Verdant scenes are painted in the format of the Western landscape tradition – think John Constable and John Robert Cozens. The paintings suggest groves of trees, walkways and shrubs all with a pale, drenched quality.
The exhibition demonstrates landscape painting going through it’s historical paces and being re-presented using a vocabulary of intuitive forms. This contemporisation of the genre has the look of a chromatography test: Raaff’s pigments appear so soaked that the different components bleed into plumes and threads of muted colour. A band of voluptuous bushes hints at a horizon line. This work has a filmy, mucosal appearance because of the transparency of Raaff’s medium. She overlays multiple layers of ink, causing a resonance like the coloured sheen of oil floating on water. The subject matter is abstracted and blurred and large areas of white space give it an expansive quality. These shapes, although separately indistinguishable, altogether remind one of landscape paintings such as View in the grounds at Protea (1832) by Sir Charles D’Oyly. This sketch, which shows the countryside that Cape Town once was, is included in the catalogue as an example of Raaff’s point of departure.
The archetype of the bucolic scene is further suggested in Mirage, where D’Orly’s fine black ink lines have bled into areas of spectral darkness that resemble smoke dissipating into a twilight sky. And in Blind Spot, synapse-like branches obscure a watery yellow sun. Looking at these works give one an X-ray view of Raaff’s process.
Old Masters (Wild Almond), a far smaller work in water-based oil on canvas, depicts a wrought tangle of knotted wood. With a lightness of touch and minimal strokes, Raaff manages to suggest a surprising muscularity. Old Masters (Pine), a bloody-pink rorschach tree, appears to shoot upwards weightlessly. Old Masters (Willow), which shows the canopy of a weeping willow, could just as easily be a fountain or the afterglow of a firework.
Despite the show’s simplicity and accessibility, it is marred by an artist statement that attributes political motivation to the works. The statement claims that they show a natural space fraught with historical violence and explore the vastly different experiences of natural spaces by South Africans as a result of the apartheid Group Areas act.
Although it is undeniably true that the unequal distribution of land and wealth are the unhealing wounds of our country, it does not come across in the work. This is because the abstraction in ‘Trail’ renders the works geographically non-specific and they only show the abundance that Raaff experiences and not the experiences of other South Africans. Her bold claims to provide insight into geography and acknowledge inequality fall flat in the absence of signifiers of these things, let alone any direct or recognisable representation of specific place. That this show is political because of subject matter implied by its omission is a stretch.
Raaff explains that the images in ‘Trail’ are based on her walks through affluent suburban greenbelts. Her vocalisation of her privileged position is fine, after-all, identifying the disparities in the everyday lives of South Africans is a necessary condition for transformation. But there is no follow up. The information about Raaff’s privileged position hangs in the air. It feels unrelated to her works and the intellectual contortions in her artist statement that try to link the two, fall short.
The written element of the exhibition seems to be compensating for something, it seems to be attempting to make her work palatable to a politically-aware viewership. But it really doesn’t have to. The body of work is poetical and beautiful and its ambiguity contributes to a sense of universality.
If one puts aside the artist statement (and it’s three addendums), the paintings begin to speak for themselves, attesting to Raaff’s indefatigable talent.