There was beer in the sink and paint splattered on the floor. There were ill-fitting blazers and secondhand tekkies for sale. There were paintings which hadn’t been removed from their easels. There were paintings on trolleys and leaned back-facing against the wall. Prices were stuck on shiny duct tape gift tags, or written in chalk on the wall. It was an exhibition, if a messy one, a punk, cheerfully DIY showcase of curatorial practice that cared little for convention. They called it ‘Shooting Birds’, perhaps a revision of that old saying, kill two birds with one stone, since the show was not an open studio and not a yard sale but somewhere in between. It was hosted in a ramshackle industrial lot off Yew Street in Salt River, where Katharien de Villiers and Brett Seiler share a studio. In the parking lot, Boni Mnisi and Wes Leal had set up a little handmade earring kiosk. Georgia Munnik was giving tarot readings. There was a table labeled “Dean Motherfucking Hutton,” where some of their old prints were piled. Luan Nel, dressed up as Donatella Visagie in orange makeup and a ghostly wig, inflated a fifty-metre-long eyeliner pencil and graffitied the side of the building. It was funny. I was fun. But what most intrigued me about Shooting Birds was that it was organic, and personal, in a way that could be replicated by neither gallery nor institution.
I’ve seen Seiler’s work in white cubes before, where his frayed, smudged, and scratched-on canvases get a little lost. In his studio, however, amid graffitied frowny faces and manifestos, the paintings constellate an oeuvre with a deeper emotional life. It would be easy to look at this installation and see an artist who is lazy because the paintings look unfinished, or amateur because they’re unrefined. But I wonder if Seiler is doing his own bit to queer the practice of painting. The mournful look of blank canvas space, speaking to that which is unseen, unsaid, unimaginable. The unadulterated sensuality of its superimposed text: ‘For every minute you jerked off you wished you were loved by that man who worked across the road from you.’ The raw corporeality of a rushed sketch. The simultaneous brutality and eroticism of paint spilling from canvas to canvas, pooling in corners. The intergenerational community that speaks through a line like, ‘I didn’t come here to party and our brothers and sisters didn’t die for this shit.’ FUCK splayed across a portrait’s cheek, almost as an afterthought, almost a relief.
Most importantly, Seiler has allowed himself to go to vulnerable places. I honestly cried a little at ‘A portrait of two men waking up in their bed after an afternoon nap.’ There’s something sweet about it, but also something unsettling. These naked bodies seem not to touch but fall short of each other; arms reach out and embrace nothing. A scribble over a phantom limb says ‘Hold my side,’ an intimacy suggested but unrealised. One figure holds a pen, and scrawls on the other’s back, ‘Show me how to love you,’ a radical opening reduced to a secret.
Sharing Seiler’s room was Shakil Solanki, who is similarly interested in the up-close, intimate, and personal. His delicate printmaking sees figures showering, embracing, tangled in flowers, and carrying each other. Lying on the floor, curved against the wall, and slipping off their shelves, these works give off the air of bedroom-wall posters. The worn leather suitcase (tagged Rustenburg High School) which transported the works, and Solanki’s email on a post-it note, have a similar aura. It’s nice to see works displayed in this way, casually, without paranoia or pretension.
Katharien de Villiers’s studio could be called casual too, if running a magic toyshop were a casual affair. The room was busy, edged by piles of strange objects: honeycomb crevices of burnt polyurethane, Soviet-satellite-shaped machines, buckets of bouncy balls. It’s mishmash and off-kilter, much like de Villiers’s work. Name another artist in Cape Town who combines dolphins, gold-tiered pyramids, cheap lace, flower petals, and single-use sugar packets on one canvas. Or paints a landscape on an old rack of venetian blinds. Or fills her studio with cardboard-cut-out rabid dogs. She’s a strange cat, and her paintings often maroon me in terms of meaning and context. And yet, I admire the way she seems to trust herself, favouring experimentation over palatability, spontaneity over doctrine. I also appreciate her pricing ethos: while bigger paintings are aimed at more elite clientele, drawings, prints, and collages are sold to friends for R200 or less, or sometimes traded for an earring or a polaroid. Because art is both culture and economy, these informal exhibition practices are important, if not vital, in keeping the market from spiralling towards the exclusive and expensive. It is also important, I think, to archive these informal exhibition practices, so that young people know that exhibiting and making money isn’t always a sell-your-soul game. New strategies are both possible and necessary.