196 Victoria, Woodstock
20.08 - 30.08.2020
A pile of hands, laid over one another, on a table; one plum-skinned, languid from the wrist, draped over the top. A figure, their face veiled by a wide-brimmed hat, reaches out to add theirs. The gesture invokes a pact, a sense of unity, even teamwork, as suggested in the title Built upon rocks. The plates and pile of fruit on the table – purple figs with pink exposed in their cross sections – allude to a shared meal. The sky is yellow, melting into the lilac and purple of the figures. There’s a sense of dryness, of sweat and hard labour in the heavy warmth of day, against the shadows and the royal purple skins.
Anna van der Ploeg’s ‘Map with Open Windows’, an exhibition of woodblocks and oil paintings, was due to show at SMITH in April. When the gallery closed its doors before lockdown eased, the artist decided to organize her own show, independently. This is a brave move, showing that one can operate outside the legitimizing space of the gallery. The work as a whole, in form, in feeling, in the weird, simmering, beautiful space it presents, is brave.
I lean in to see the layers of oil, seeped into the cotton. The palette is warm, rich and giving – but there is also something concealed, held back. In many works faces are hidden, in the act of holding up a map or hanging laundry. There is a preoccupation with hands and feet; what is obscured lies behind sheets or under tables. In the figures’ movements, a sense of struggle, of violence, latent to the point of undetectable, but emerging the longer you look at the painting. A lover’s discourse shows feet touching under a table: the luminous red of his bare thighs, a napkin on her lap, the floor patterned with broken plates.
In the sequences of woodblocks, small grooves have been carved, growing like tiny leaves or flames. The feeling on the surface is like a disturbance on water. The form asserts its originality; the plywood is bent so that it cannot resemble a printing block. Figures crawl on the checkered floor beneath a table, between several pairs of legs. Some are locked in a fight (or an embrace), one reaches for the food on a plate held out to him. The table forms a ceiling – a limit to the world, a world below the one we know. There’s a queue of people devolving into movement, sprawling, falling, holding hands, the gestures reminiscent of Matisse’s Dancers. We see similar red figures struggling in a headwind, accosted by fly-away laundry. Washing lines bear white clothes, semi-translucent and animated in the wind, appearing like the ghosts of shirts and pants.
The work is physically beautiful in a way that risks its dismissal as unserious or superficial; beauty presents no challenge, no discomfort, just pleasure for its own sake. In contrast, the unaesthetic forces the viewer to see it. There is a moral implication in this challenge: ugliness disturbs; beauty soothes. The unaesthetic disrupts assumptions, hierarchies and ideals of beauty. In contrast to this, or perhaps because of it, beauty, here, functions as both a challenge and a seduction: it draws the viewer in, making them engage without affronting them or giving them the desire to turn away. Van der Ploeg’s work allows us to look closer and longer, to notice more. The effect here is not abstract; there is a sense of struggle or discomfort, but only if you stay with the works for a while.
It seems the same story is being played out in different scenes, through different perspectives: a domestic setting featuring tables, plates and food, but the food is scattered on the floor; an idealized pastoral scene – white washing hanging on the line in a field, but surrounded by smoke from a fire. Something is awry.
Saying this work is about labour, space or belonging would be turning it into a fable and indeed there is something surreal and poetic about it. Yet there is no moral, nothing dictatorial; only suggestions. Beauty becomes an aid to interrogation, rather than an escape from it. A red hand holding a sphere – a sun perhaps, or a wide-brimmed hat – is titled Fortune favours the rich.
In the final two images something is, perhaps, revealed. A young man, a boy even, sitting on the ground. His is more than the suggestion of a face; the only face we see clearly in all the works. Another figure stands above him, hand on his shoulder. It is a caring, but authoritative gesture. The one title, The truth is slow to get its boots on, iterates his sense of unwillingness, his resistance to the touch. Given the specificity of the face, I wonder whether the person we see is real or symbolic. In these larger figures, the etching in the wood is more obvious than in the other woodblocks; the features and marks on their skin thrown into sharper relief. The effect is reminiscent of lines on a map, echoing the ways in which we are marked by the world and the marks we make in return.
Still, these paintings felt somewhat separate from the others; rather than filling in the prior blanks they make the viewer more uncertain. In the whirling spirals of smoke or cloth, or the blank expanse of a sheet, or a piece of paper, there seems a desire to make sense of things, but a knowing that this desire is fraught.