Abstraction is a misnomer that assumes one is dealing with ideas and not things or events. It is all three – mindful, palpable, eventful. If abstraction has been divorced from the Real, this is because we’ve maintained a hoax that existence precedes essence – or vice versa, depending on one’s point of view – when in fact all of life, all art, fudges more commonly than it is parsed. The Real is an ideology, as is Abstraction. If the former now dominates – it has since Plato, who loathed artists – it is because now, most fervently, we ascribe to narrative, story, imputed-expected-received outcomes. Ours is a material age, an age of palpable Ideas, of people as representative of Ideas. It is no accident that we find ourselves avidly and blinkerdly preoccupied with indices such as race-age-gender-sexual persuasion, at the expense of all else that makes up a life. We subtract rather than abstract, shut out and shut in, the better to solidify what differentiates rather than connects us. Balkanised, separatist, we are fast abandoning the synthetic and synergetic power of abstraction.
This morning I met with Mia Thom at Circa in Cape Town to listen to a composition for harp and double bass. An ‘unlikely duet’, the work is as much about the casing which dates back to 1929 as it is about the music miked within it. Music, we’re told, is the most abstract of forms. It is form nonetheless. All art is as incorporeal as music, and as substantive. We choose not to see it that way. Listening to the composition, lasting 12-13 mins, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the exquisite modular shape of the double bass’s case, a sculpture perfectly in situ. All the forms we make are anthropomorphic extensions and mirrors of ourselves. There, in that dark wooden shape was a neck, torso, breast, a taut and constrained vessel, body. The music, says Thom, is ‘a personification of the object’.
‘Modified as functional speakers’ – their openings agape – it was as though the two cases were speaking each to each. The sounds emitted – abrupt, peripatetic, soulfully elongated – formed a tenuous yet tender conversation which, for Thom, ‘expressed the complexity of a relationship between two people’. As the title of the sound installation – Attune – attests, it is about ‘attunement’, with the added plaintive call for atonement. The score is by Mikaila Alyssa Smith, the harpist Jana van der Walt, the bassist Mariechen Meyer, the bespoke speakers by Jacques van Zyl. Their synergetic inspiration, Mia Thom.
This evening, at WHATIFTHEWORLD, Chris Soal opens his solo show, ‘As Above So Below’. Here, once again, we find a refusal of neatly compartmentalised distinctions. Here, again, it is the absorptive power of abstraction which tolls. For what Soal seeks to communicate to us in a non-aural form is the indelible connection between things and being, life as the sum of traces, the ghosts of indented forms. Life as the continuum of waste, the embodiment of surplus. If Thom is drawn to austerity, Soal holds fast to multitudes. Thousands of beer bottle caps, stitched together, conjure a baleful vision of gutted intestines, the black-silver-golden piping cascading snarlingly, beautifully, from its armature of wall to the writhing floor beneath. Elegant yet ominous, this work embodies all within us which we choose not to countenance.
Soal’s vision, like Thom’s, is visceral and sensuous, but it is also conspiratorially connected to a greater abstract Idea. If his objects are personifications, suggest the human, then it is the human as matter, as congested pooling viscera. Coils of lethal steel shavings leap outward from a nest of roped bottle caps. The disjunction is sharp, Soal no blunt instrument. Even his conglomerates made of birch toothpicks, for all their gauzy softened allure, are made up of a myriad sharpened points. Texture is certainly a decisive element in all Soal makes, but it is what texture tells us about life – its congested, tart, glittering filth, which stays. For while his sculpture, embracing wall and floor, is a hypnotically coiling thing, it also carries the residue of offal – an abject beauty.
This is unsurprising given this time and place. However, while others decry, preferring to sound an alarm, Soal, like Thom, ask us to dial down the volume and attend to all that is unheard, unsaid, or unsayable; yet must be expressed. It is inside of the abstract that life with all its groans and yearnings tolls most compellingly.
A few days prior, at Graham Modern and Contemporary in Johannesburg, Jennifer Morrison opened her solo show. Titled ‘Remember to Forget’, it too expresses a serpentine coil, some auto cannibalisation. Nothing starts and ends, nothing is easily parsed. Rather, ours is an obfuscated interwoven mess we call life. Wonder lies therein. Dread too. If Thom connects sound and substance, and reminds us that sound too is substantive, if Soal constructs works that peel and writhe away from sheer surfaces, then Morrison, who is a painter, examines all that churns within and across a realm of sheer surfaces. What she gifts us is a series of luminous paintings which are as mercurial as they are material. All energy seems caught in an intense rictus. The sensation I experience before them is at once hemmed in and wildly loose. Spirogyra … weeds … tubular forms … cathodes … tangled strips of light … writhing schools of formless creatures lit from within, caught in a deep…. I’m reminded of the words by the American painter, Nell Blaine (1922-1996), ‘I never thought of abstraction as divorced from nature. Vital abstractions conveyed … a sense of breathing and an essence of rhythm as in growing things’.
If, tonally, Thom and Soal’s works are muted, Morrison’s are luminescent. Unafraid of colour, fascinated by an electrified universe – a world of sheer energy – Morrison’s paintings are at once archetypal in their embrace of abstraction, yet reckless. Unmoved by austerity, wary of the darkness within, she chooses to embrace a phosphorescent world. Her inspiration is science and nature, her wish – I believe – to enfold us in infinite wonder. For her a painting is not merely a thing, a form, though the surface and ground upon and within which it subsists is sacred. Rather, what matters is what is released, what cannot be contained or managed and maintained – all that which refuses the tyranny of reason, the ordering of sense, all that is conditional.
Given how hard it is to release oneself from tyranny, the little we allow for wonder, her paintings emerge as a blessing. Against the staccato rhythms of daily life, or the helter-skelter of our nonplussed energies, Morrison offers us a peculiarly graceful tumult. It is not Matisse’s sweet pastel dance we require when we flop onto our armchairs or bed, but the glittering snarls of precious light. When we close our eyes to sunlight dancing motes appear. When opened, in a gallery where we are confronted by a monumental series of dazzling churning forms, it is there where I at least find some beatific composure.
There is no rest for the wicked, but grace, astoundingly, is abundant. And where it can best be found is in artworks devoted to abstraction. One last exhibition by Mark Rautenbach, staged at OPEN 24 HRS, a building in Cape Town’s design district, could perhaps be considered as abstraction’s divine glue. If Thom is drawn to an atonal polyphonic passion, Soal to mirrored reversible worlds, Morrison to the bounteous splendour of colour – notwithstanding that each of these assessments is deserving of greater insight – can one say that Rautenbach, given his passion for the symmetry of cosmological forms is the ‘in’ for those who resist the indefinite? And is this not why his works might speak most reassuringly for those in need of an anchor?
Titled ‘World Worlding’, Rautenbach’s show speaks to a desire for rebirth, a renunciation of secular certainty, a will towards a beneficent, unknowable, yet intuited grace. Like Soal he seeks to make links, pull together dissonant realms, find connections between extremes – above and below. The realms which Thom and Morrison choose to keep ceaselessly in play and boundless, Rautenbach seeks to synthesise. The spherical form – we see this in Soal’s mandala-like coil of silvery bottle caps – is omnipresent in Rautenbach’s show. But if a sphere is a symbol of completion, it is also capable of devouring itself. When perceived statically, it is a benign Idea, when animated it is anything but. In a work titled Putting Myself back Together, double-sided, made of paper, tape, safety pins, and nylon gut, Rautenbach reminds us of the precarity of all our ideals.
What then is this World Worlding, if not the expression of our most vulnerable longing? How do we put ourselves back together? Is this possible? Or mere wish fulfilment? Surely the desire is enough? Each artist has found their own peculiar way into the boundless realm of abstraction, each in their own way expresses the vulnerability that drives it. But what is indisputable is the desire to reinvent the self, speak each to each, no matter how tenuously, and embrace the grace that lies within abstraction.