In the same way as literary sci-fi futures can be both of the past and still stylistically futuristic, ‘Back to the Future III’ proposes that abstraction as avante garde is in the past, but considers the genre ripe for reinvention – or at least occasional inevitable resurgence. SMAC’s seventh abstract survey show aims to append to the family tree of South African abstractionism. The current installment comprises twenty five artists whose work varies from hard edge to process-driven pattern-making.
20th century wundercritic, Clement Greenberg limned abstraction as a glorious distillation of art when it is finally liberated from regurgitating reality. It may be a negative descriptor – defined by that which it is not – but in the wake of the figurative comes puritanical formalism; shape, colour, line, space, texture, etc. And there be dragons. People who made broad and unverifiable statements that make me nervous, asserted that beyond the realm of recognisable forms, art gained the power to evoke transcendental beauty and emotion. Motherwell cautioned: ‘Make no mistake, abstract art is a form of mysticism.’
Representing abstraction in the strictly geometric sense is a denuded band of pioneer South African abstractionists; among them Trevor Coleman, Hannatjie van de Wat and Kevin Atkinson.
Van der Wat’s Spaceship I & II are identical square compositions. Angular lines travel across dark and light blue bands. They are sharp and unerring, as unpainterly and effective as a traffic chevrons.
Repping Futurism’s love of movement and the mechanical, Eduardo Villa adds a pair of symmetrical hyper-60s brooches worn by your stern maiden aunt. Charles Gassner and Nel Erasmus provide the Art Informel in flavours of brown and still bearing traces of cubism. A sheepish-looking cut-out of a flutist peers from out of the centre of a Christo Coetzee. Without the paint-choked bicycle wheels his work still looks as though it’s been dredged from a lake bottom. Gutai group, check! A Walter Battiss clearly depicting African women at a market is a tenuous link to the theme. (Minus points for putting a Battiss in for the name.)
But the real intrigue of the ‘Back to the Future’ franchise is in the question of a generational likeness. Is there a familial resemblance between a John Murray and a Paul Klee? (I think so.) Has the Barend de Wet inherited the bone structure of a Sam Gilliam? Are the emerging artists showcased here the the brainchildren of career abstractionists?
Jeanne Hoffman has maintained an academic detachment from representation but she evokes the style and pallette of Philip Guston. Her painting Window is accompanied by a trellised scaffold which supports seven ceramic sculptures, together entitled Plain. Both elements explore forms methodically divorced from the natural world. The remnants are playfully rendered in shades of off-white, powder-puff pink and warm brown. The clay bears the traces of fingers smooshing the crenelations of a might-be pie crust, smoothing a swollen alien bulb and slopping a faintly lined dune with glistening glaze. Window and Plain are reminders that ‘abstract’ is also a verb.
Karakashian’s small minatory canvas Undying XXVI, confident in its simplicity, seems to show monochromatic Northern Lights or the descension of an oil-themed biblical plague. The synergy of material elements conveys a real sense of doom, providing a 50 x 40 cm window into one’s demise.
The inclusion of works constructed through the build up of monads into larger structures or colonies is conspicuously over-enthusiastic, such as Wallen Mapondera’s Clarifications and Usha Seejarim’s Diurnal. In works such as these, process is the crux of the artwork because it is a meditative practice of duplication. The strongest of these, Sandile Zulu’s Artoms Archetype Tissue Series 3, postulates the elemental building blocks of creation. The work is made using fire, water, air and earth on canvas seen through a punctured and cauterized waterproof plane. It stylistically mimics a microscope slide, inviting a shift in scale to the power of thousands.
If Only for a Moment, by Bonolo Kavula, is made through similar repetition, this time of lino-prints on loosely hung canvas. Here the atoms are tiny lines, strings of 1s, blue as a blueprint for a colour field painting but the overall effect is of an irritating lack of conceptual or emotional depth. Seejarim’s A Stain a Day is an arrogant schematic of two hundred and twenty one coffee mug stains. If Only for a Moment and A Stain a Day court the label Zombie Formalism. These works, dominated by tessellation, present the aloof minimalist formula that we know and expect. Adhering to a look original to the likes of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman and continued by contemporary minimalist abstractionists such as Lucien Smith or Lars Christensen. The paradox of abstraction here (as illustrated by a slideshow of strikingly similar works compiled by New York Magazine spin-off, The Vulture) is that abstraction as we know it is no longer terra nova. Many of the established tropes of Abstract art have, through their longevity and fame, become too legible and familiar. Bauhaus photographer and painter Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said of abstraction:
Like the semanticist, who strives for logical cleanliness, a clearing away of loosely trailing connotative associations in the verbal sphere, the abstract artist seeks to disengage the visual fundamentals from the welter of traditional symbolism and inherited illusionistic expectations.
The inability to see familiar Abstract tropes with fresh uncomprehending eyes means that in the reuse of those tropes their abstractness is null – and replication of these tropes is not replication of their original value.
Perhaps signalling cynicism towards a) the ability of abstract art to contain that Greenberg magic, b) the tradition of Abstract art being non-issue-driven in South Africa and c) the renowned aesthetics of abstract art, many of the artists featured in Back to the Future III work at the fringes of abstraction, hedging their bets in the realm of representation.
For example, Gerda Scheepers’ Showing Method, Showing Message displays geometric shapes that could be off-cuts of a textile pattern, diss-assembled and arranged in parallel lines. The cheap synthetic material connotes domestic femininity and the menial labour of constructing a home and a woman.
The interpretation of Pierre Vermeulen’s 54 | 99 hair orchid sweat prints depends unequivocally on an understanding of the symbolic content of his materials and their novel interaction. Gold leaf, flowers and shellac; materials of adornment, bear the abject imprint of the body. An exploration of the construction of the ego around a porous and fragile self.
Daniella Mooney’s Find the Place / Create a Centre evinces magical realism with its tiny staircase carved into raw granite. Peter Eastman finds partial abstraction in the Birch bark and lightning bolt twigs of the undergrowth. Asha Zero’s pop-art cum peeling poster graffitti references advertising, the internet and capitalism.
SMAC frequently does the art-viewing public a service by showing the work of Modern South African painters past, but in ‘Back to the Future III’ they are framed as the failed old guard and the implication resounds that abstraction needs be augmented by conceptual or symbolic content to remain current.