The artists in ‘Close Encounters’ at SMITH explore intimacy as a theme from many different angles: what qualifies as intimate, how is intimacy expressed, who is allowed to be intimate with whom. Visiting the exhibition, I became curious about intimacy in a more tangible sense, the actual exchange of intimacy as the works converse with each other, as the show converses with the audience. I found myself wondering, ‘Can an art object be a vehicle for fostering intimacy between artist and viewer?’
On the one hand, art offers a unique opportunity to confess, to take risks, and to lay oneself bare. For example, it’s risky for Brett Seiler to put up an in-your-face, DIY-style painting that reveals, ‘I once jerked off to a portrait of Jesus.’ It’s another risk altogether for Seiler to announce the same in a public square.
On the other hand, a dyadic relationship that springs from good intimate encounters might get lost in the objectification of say, a painting. For example, Amy Lester’s The Birth, a watercolour rendering of the post-birth nude, accompanied by a photo of the artist’s own birth. I am humbled by the candid, grotesque beauty of the birthing body – breasts blue-beaten and heavy, vagina surrendered and then stitched back together. I feel especially humbled by the photograph – two bodies covered in each other’s brine – but there’s something strange about its placement. I want to get to know Amy. Maybe she will show me her birthday photograph, and I will show her mine, and we will marvel together at our mothers’ courage. In essence, I don’t want vulnerability to be a one-way exchange.
Why is ‘intimacy’ an expectation of the artist anyway? On top of making work that stands out in an over-saturated visual culture, on top of justifying the work’s value in a market where many hands are fighting for a slim slice of the art collector’s pie, it seems to me that in order to ‘make it’ in the art world, the artist must perform a striptease-of-sorts. She is asked always to reveal new parts of herself, to make herself vulnerable for the viewer’s consumption. No work in the show exemplifies this more for me than Olivié Keck’s Blessed With Beauty And Rage. In the bedroom, on the wall, hangs the painting-within-a-painting. It’s a simple sketch of a leotard-clad figure and the figure’s shadow on a summer day. On the bed lies a mirror figure, same pink leotard, turned away from the viewer in order to center what it is we really came here to see: pop of crimson, and the resting figure’s menstrual blood stains her linens and clothes. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with periods in paintings; the sight is as casual and organic to me as the cycles I’ve grown used to. But I see something voyeuristic in the framing of it. As if the painting on the wall is not shocking enough to warrant our attention, as if the figure’s intimate domestic rituals are not intimate enough. An image like this proves the sometimes libidinal fixations we project onto the artworks we purport to read honestly.
The works convey intimacy of a sort, but they also delay intimacy, or divert attention back the viewer. Sepideh Mehraban’s paintings, for instance, contain threads of personal narrative, but are ultimately obscured, rendered illegible – or at least inconclusive – by layers of glue and paint. In Blueprint, Sitaara Stodel recreates interiors from various childhood homes, toeing the line between memory-as-it-was and the memory-as-remembered. Though the narrative offers us glimpses into another person’s past, the continual making and re-making of the collages reminds us that representations are tricky; we can never claim to know someone else in full. Thandiwe Msebenzi’s photographs do similar work. They appear like film stills: an axe on floral bed linens, a blurry figure at a curtain-drawn window. These stills offer glimpses, suggest themes, but without context, the story in full – if there is one – is left for the artist to know, and for the viewer to dwell in uncertainty.
The close encounter becomes just that. Close, but not quite. Much of the work in this show is not about inviting intimacy between artist and viewer, but about the deeply personal relationships artists have with themselves and the work they do. The challenge for us, then, is to bear adequate witness to that relationship. ‘Is the intimacy felt at the cinema,’ the artist Michaela Younge asks, ‘an intimacy shared with the strangers in the darkness, or an intimacy with the darkness itself?’ In other words, sometimes, the most moving moments of art-loving come not when we think we’ve reached a point of understanding, but when we accept that we’ve been left in the dark.