Barnard Gallery, Cape Town
‘Waiting for Rain’, Sarah Biggs’s second solo show with the Barnard Gallery, has a particularly filmic quality about it. By way of her quick and sheer paintwork, the artist utters to us a piecemeal narrative in the manner of sci-fi period drama. The story is no doubt a South African one, it moves hesitatingly over outdoorsy scenery, a tech-fabric colour scheme, and jaundiced faces that sob turpsy tears, as it wedges itself among local pressures.
From the sunny wilderness depicted in Fynbos to the aerial mountainscape in Hot Waters, Biggs is clearly taking the natural world as her subject – a marked interest that runs through most of the artist’s past practice. In this show, her portrayal of nature is one which wavers between insentient toughness and a promise of enchantment. Waiting for Rain, for instance, channels the magical phosphorescence of Peter Doig’s landscapes in glazes of underwater turquoise and indigo blue; this sits alongside feelings of total expiration in the form of a big, eery skull in The distance of the moon (spring tide).
I would like to relate her lean on natural imagery to some romantic impulse – her larger, more abstract works make a possible case for this. Sunshower, for instance, suggests something like a reduction of Turner’s later, more vibrant and atmospheric landscapes. However her colouration seems to sap these pictures of that kind of intent. Take, for instance, the work of Penny Siopis, who, by means of her pinks, peaches and reds, charges the pronounced materiality of her pictures with real bodily presence. Biggs’s colouration, on the other hand, plays a far more subversive role. For the most part, her colours seem to signify sickness or pollution; they inform us that, regrettably, this is no feel-good story she is imparting here. Even when uses magical associations and illustrations to depict nature as something captivating and mysterious, such as in Waiting for rain or All at one point, these scenes seem always to occur by more uncommon conditions, like at subterranean levels or by the light of luminous creatures at night.
Biggs’s curiosity with her material is evident, for which almost every picture is an insistent witness. Returning again to Siopis, Biggs’s experimentation with her materials in the service of picture-making are not unlike what we see in Siopis’s more recent glue and ink works. The expressed handling at the surface and a harnessing of the material’s ‘nature’ become as significant a contribution to the work as the pictorial aspects. Both artists hold their materials and alchemic processes in focused view. And Biggs’s sensationalist tip ruptures the paintings’ ‘fourth wall’, so to speak, so that one finds oneself, firstly and finally, seduced by these secrets at the surface.
Both painters use this presence of the material as a device for abstraction. They operate on a threshold between abstract and figurative work by using the precarity of paint (or ink, or glue) as a dial that reaches from some untouched ‘chaos’, as Biggs calls it, to being meticulously controlled. In The smell of thunder, she lets runny paint dry as ‘runny paint’ – a memorial to its former wetness – and then refigures one of the central drips into a tear that totally conquers its figure’s patient face.
This manner of abstraction is clearly in support of the show’s narrative. It is notable that the title of the show, ‘Waiting for Rain’, which forms its narrative basis too, is no doubt in response to the on-going drought in Cape Town, and hints at a form of pathetic fallacy that uses this condition in nature to reflect a more human drama. Her approaching-romantic language is established just to be severed at its most definitive moments: the sublimity of the natural world is tempered by its own ugliness and weakness; transcendence into these paintings’ realm is prohibited, while we’re so often at their surface; the practice of idealism is not confirmed, but left in limbo while the wanting, wishing manner of the figures remains only as such, unsated.
‘Waiting for Rain’ shares its sample of delight, but I missed feeling like I’d rubbed up against another’s human spirit. I got the sense that Biggs would often lean on painterly tropes and trickery – no doubt a result of sharpened practice – but to me this suggests a kind of guardedness or timidity on the part of the artist. Through the means of such well-digested visual language or at times unsubstantiated, albeit seductive, ornamental use of her medium, the show falls short in articulating the real challenge or the friction which its story seems to approach.