Sanell Aggenbach’s new show, ‘The Heart Has Many Rooms’, currently up at the Everard Read Johannesburg’s CIRCA space, explores sensations of affection, tenderness, eroticism and even loneliness. Trading in her characteristic palette (muted but not quite monochromatic: there’s as much Payne’s grey and Cerulean blue here as there is phthalo blue), the artist ventures towards installation by occupying, as the show’s title suggests, two spaces of the gallery’s vast complex.
Aggenbach is a deeply introspective artist. Previous shows of her work have dealt, sometimes playfully, with the problematics of her identity as a white Afrikaner in a post-colonial South Africa. Images of famous South African beauty queen Anneline Kriel, who won the 1974 Miss World pageant by default, have appeared several times in Aggenbach’s work. So, too, have Apartheid patriarchs like HF Verwoerd, their mouths folded back in a rebellious act of silencing.
Much of the rest of Aggenbach’s work is imbued with a deep eroticism. She is undeniably from the post-Richter-school of photo-based painters. Yet her works, either directly through imagery (Bloom from 2011, and Magnolia from 2012 are overtly coital pictures) or via her undeniably sensual handling of paint, depart from the Teutonic god’s ennui and calculated ambivalence.
In ‘The Heart Has Many Rooms’, bed-sized paintings of disheveled sheets veer towards near-abstraction. Are Aggenbach’s empty beds sites of affection, of love, or are they pointedly empty, abandoned? They seem to ask what it means to navigate love, sex, the carnal. Certainly, the folds of the sheets in Atlas I and II, rendered with an impressionistic looseness, are intentionally fleshy and sexual.
This eroticism shifts to voyeurism elsewhere. Last Light and Half Light deal in images culled from innocuous, vintage soft porn. Yet Aggenbach twice-removes us from the possibility of titillation, first by reducing the palettes of each (Last Light is bleached out, all creams and lurid yellows, while Half Light is partially obscured with grey); and secondly by crumpling the canvases on their stretchers. It’s as if the bodies that are missing from the creased beds in Atlas I and II are here in the smaller works, and the surfaces of these smaller works are, in turn, physically disturbed to echo the illusion of disturbance in the larger paintings.
Possibly the most compelling painting on the show is a nearly-square image titled Travel Light. It shows a woman naked from the waist down, removing her underwear. The work is made with beautiful tenderness, the figure’s edges shimmering with the remnants of underpainting. It’s a moment of vulnerability more than erotic self-display, underlined by the work’s small size. Is the figure removing her underwear to make love? Or is she being subjected to a Degas-like gaze, in a moment when she may not feel very sexy? Again, the problems with sex, the body and making images of the female nude are obstacles in the terrain Aggenbach willingly traverses.
As Tarryn Jameson, writing for www.joburg.co.za, said about the exhibition, it explores different levels of tenderness: the private downstairs, and the maternal upstairs. In CIRCA’s large, oval-shaped space, the Aggenbach shows the Madre Pieta, a 2m-high bronze of a pair of rabbits in a pose reminiscent of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s marble. Stylized without eyes and mouths, their muteness is striking, forming some sort of existential commentary on the pain and joy of motherhood (madre means ‘mother’ in the Romance languages). This commentary is amplified by the fact that the sculptural pair is the only work in the space. Spotlit, dramatic and alone, the effect is one of silent love, unexpressed suffering. One almost feels remorse at leaving the pair there as one departs the space, conscious that the bond that connects the mother to the child also anchors her existence to her offspring’s. Aggenbach speaks with heart-breaking sincerity about the nature of motherly love, in a way that counters the popular contemporary narratives presented by the army of ‘mom-bloggers’ on Instagram. Motherhood here is cast in the terms established by Catholic art. The Church’s program of using art to humanize the Christian story arguably reached its zenith in Buonarroti’s astounding image of loss and sorrow. In Aggenbach’s hands, the pieta-image becomes a monument to everyday losses, the incremental pulling-apart between parents and children simply through the passage of time.
Perhaps because of the intense polarization in the media, we’ve lost the idea of a feminism that isn’t always needing to defend itself, one that can be philosophical more than polemical. It strikes me that Aggenbach’s quiet ruminations are intensely feminist, deeply concerned with the psychological weight of being a woman and a mother in the contemporary moment. This show moved me like no other this year.