No End contemporary, Johannesburg
24.05 – 23.06.2018
It’s interesting to note how many Modern Art movements are being reprised in our age of stylistic explosion. The much-derided ‘zombie formalism’ of recent years – so called because it raises the corpse of Abstract Expressionism and makes it to walk among the living at art fairs – is the most obvious and most reductive iteration of this revivalist ethic.
Much more interesting is how young artists have begun to find in Surrealism fresh visual strategies and tropes with which to occupy themselves. Now, it’s wise to be mindful here that there’s Surrealism and there’s Surrealism: there’s schlocky, Dalì-esque ‘weird’ Surrealism, the kind your kid brother adores and would dearly like you to paint on his skateboard, please. Then there’s the quieter, ultimately more unsettling sort, the surface disturbances and subtly compelling, expectation-thwarting work of Jean (Hans) Arp and Meret Oppenheim. Happily, it’s within this second camp that young Chris Soal, as amiable and interesting a human being as one is likely to meet, has staked his claim.
The recent recipient of the Overall Sculpture and Creativity Award at the annual PPC Imaginarium, Soal is a young star to watch on the Johannesburg scene. He doubles as a cameraman at William Kentridge’s The Centre for the Less Good Idea, and is doubtless honing his ideas in this rich creative incubator. He also recently participated in the Southern African Foundation for Contemporary Art’s Open Studio event in Knysna, with the likes of video art titan Minnette Vári: no mean feat for a 2017 graduate. His work has cropped up on numerous No End group shows (which, in full disclosure, is also the space that shows my work from time to time: such is the embedded nature of our chosen field). His retreading of pre-existing unitary materials (bottle tops, toothpicks), while it recalls sculptor Paul Edmunds’ modular construction ethos and interest in environmental concerns, stands out for its viscerality. So, ‘Orbits of Relating’, his first solo in No End’s slender Linden space, is much anticipated.
And it’s quite a cracker; it’s a packed show, with around eighteen works populating the interior. In truth, it would’ve benefitted from a bit of editing, but the overall effect is still compelling. A shift from lighter, untreated toothpick wall-based sculptures to darker, burnt works creates a steady tonal gradient the deeper one moves into the interior. Soal’s works have given them ample raw material with which to curate. His wall-based relief sculptures, such as To know that one is dreaming is be no longer perfectly asleep (2018) and A delight in knowing and being known (2018), are constructed from thousands of toothpicks sticking out of the works towards the viewer, variously recall topographical models and crop circle photos. Surface disruption, imminent danger, the push/pull of Surrealism’s fascinating horror: all of these initially strike one upon entering the space.
Yet the pieces also resonate with the politics of the day: Soal has titled the show ‘Orbits of Relating’, and quotes artist US Andrea Zittel to frame his concerns: “We think we are liberated by individualism, but in reality we’ve given up so much power. People are so caught up in the nuances of their own personal realm that they’ve lost real civic relationships with one another. We’ve lost that collective power.” Thus, the works begin to take on a new existence as you contemplate them: you realise they’re ruminations on the individual versus the collective, on how the efforts of millions of individuals create orbits, patterns, trends of action and reaction. The toothpicks become anthropomorphic (another Surrealist tactic), like thousands of tiny humans all leaning this way or that, all reaching up and out for something, each individual effecting the collective around it. In contemporary criticism, ‘The Human Condition’ is something of a crutch concept: whenever a writer begins reaching around for meaning, it’s a serviceable if predictable Platonic default. But in this case, one senses that Soal has created a body of work that deals precisely with that, with his understanding of how our individualistic sense of self needs to be modulated in light of a growing subscription to collectivist values.
To return to Surrealism for a second: I’ve always felt that Dada and Surrealism were related but oppositional: both philosophical reactions to The Great War, but one activist in nature while the other was self-reflexive. I imagine the Dadaists, contorted with righteous indignation, saying, ‘How could they allow this war to happen to us?’, while the Surrealists came around less than a decade later to ask, ‘What in us enabled the war to happen?’. I wonder if Soal’s work will develop in that direction: a consideration of how, in this moment of international political crisis, when polarisation is the very air we breathe, we come to assess our selves not only as rights-bearing individualist consumers and voters, but members of a species collective that is deeply affected by how each individual conducts their life.