There was no more prescient exhibition than that staged at SMITH by Stephen Allwright, between 20 February – 20 March, a few days before South Africa’s lockdown. Its title, ‘Broken Face Soliloquies’, sums up the isolation we are all undergoing, the consequence of which is unreckonable. What we do know is the cliff face of isolation, gnarled, unscalable, ever present, which, like a Christo and Jeanne-Claud wraparound we’ve hidden from ourselves, even though we could feel it, touch it. Isolation – a shimmering pleated boulder in the head, the heart. No longer. We are now in the grip of our aloneness as we measure our lives in coffee spoons. Now, like Prufrock, we soliloquise. We speak aloud to ourselves, and we listen. If we can.
By combining a solitary speech-act with the body’s mystery, Allwright’s ‘Broken Face Soliloquies’ return us to our native land. Emerging from his zinc-roofed shed in rural Barrydale, having spent the day drawing and painting in the company of his self-portraits, Allwright sees his reflection in a large window of the adjoining house. ‘I barely recognise it myself,’ he says. ‘It is as If I am simultaneously both the reflection in the glass and the pictures, but also neither of them.’ This was Hamlet’s puzzle too – Who and what one is, the disguises one assumes, an image in a glass, or which one makes up. Both. And neither.
If Allwright’s self-portraits teach us anything, it is the vertiginous nature of being. ‘I like the idea of sand paintings disappearing in the wind. I imagined that in this case when the picture is finished the Artist disappears in the wind.’ The tenuousness of the enterprise is achingly revealing. As to where, in fact, the artist is in the making, is a mystery. A thing of air. Known for his solitude and silence, Allwright speaks – if such is what he does – through ink, graphite and watercolour. It is the immediacy of these mediums, their ephemerality, that draws him. He grapples ‘with how to speak, albeit visually, about how my thoughts and preoccupations were washing over me.’ This is why someone like Allwright makes art. His is not a practice driven by intent. It is an inscrutable impulse awash with urgencies, yearnings, ‘preoccupations’ that enter his world in passing, in a moment of making.
‘I imagined that in this body of work I was trying to assassinate myself.’ How so? Because the making of a self is also its undoing? Because nothing made – in this case a self-portrait – is ever a summation or true likeness? Because art is an inkling, the self a quicksand? If ‘the picture itself leads the process … the outcome … dependent on the demands of the drawing,’ then where, one wonders, does the artist live? In Eye and Mind, Merleau-Ponty has provided an answer: ‘It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.’
On entering SMITH on Church Street, in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD, I was struck by the solitariness of Allwright’s vision. These were drawings, in ink and watercolour, that barely announced their presence. More sliver than thing, their corporeality seemed hesitant, insubstantial, and yet, despite their porousness, strangely full. Diagrammatic, yet not, part stark line, part muted watercolour, they seemed to teeter at the brink of a flouted quest. Lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem, Preludes, written between 1910-1911 when in his twenties, returned to me:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
In the centrally placed self-portrait – Dark Portrait – we see the artist with bared torso, nipples like pointed suction caps, a queerly elongated shoulder and arm draped over a barred white chair, against a black backdrop. The artist’s gaze resists the onlooker – himself? The viewer? Or is there some other purpose for this sideways look? Some other preoccupation?
Conceived askance, as are all Allwright’s painted drawings, the work beggars our private thoughts and feelings. It places us just there, in the ligature of line and colour as tenuous as it is bold. The whole is sheer, lean, taut, the artist’s yellow hair neatly parted above drooping scrabbled eyebrows and runnels of scraggly beard. Melancholy shapes the drop of the lips, the slalom-sloped nose, hammocked lids, inked eyes, the left veering into the encroaching night that seems to seep downwards, and inwards. It is a drawing, a painting, that precariously carries its burden. The flop of arm, snap of the clavicle, earnestly parsed line and blot of puce, conveys the body’s fragile presence, its amorphousness. I am reminded of Don Quixote of La Mancha, a stick figure on a bony stead.
Allwright’s ‘Broken Face Soliloquies,’ we now realise – some bereft, others brittlely sequestered – is a summation of global despair. No one, and nothing, is secure or safe. That the threat was never tangible was always Allwright’s point. The masks we now wear as we trundle along Eliot’s ‘half-deserted’ (now fully deserted) streets, taking our lives into our hands en route to the supermarket – because we must eat, because we cannot bare attrition, loneliness – are both gestural and de rigueur. But as Allwright well knows, that mask with which we strive to conceal and protect ourselves lies deeper still. It is buried within, like a caul wrapped about an abyss. A shattered fathomless face.