13.02 - 31.05.2021
Acerbic wit and scrupulous self-reflection are as synonymous with Georgina Gratrix’s paintings as the artist’s sensitivity to the lurid and grotesque. Through the process of painting, everything taken as subject is in turn deconstructed. Gratrix’s still lifes attack the tradition of still lifes, her portraits are polemics against portraiture, even her use of impasto, so thick, so wrinkled and coagulate, mocks the paintbrush: for Gratrix painting is criticism. ‘The Reunion’ at the Norval Foundation, has chosen to focus on portraits and still lifes in Gratrix’s practice, and in a sense then it is also an exhibition that celebrates the very thing the paintings attack. The exhibition applauds Gratrix as an artist, while — centred around the portrait — the paintings launch their own critique of the ‘self’ and the ‘image’. The face, as a representation of the self, becomes for Gratrix a field of intensity, on which plays out a kind of self-abnegation and diminution of the ego.
On visiting the exhibition last Saturday three paintings were missing from the show including the title piece, The Reunion. In their places, small vinyl print-outs of these paintings were put up with texts explaining the delay as a result of the on-going pandemic’s effects on transportation. The removal of the exhibition’s centrepiece however meant that an unusual weight was placed on two earlier portraits, 80’s Mom, 2013 and The History of Dad, 2011. These family portraits were lent greater curatorial significance as a result, framing the rest of the exhibition within a certain emotional register. The face depicted in The History of Dad is bloated, layered by thick blood-vessel impasto. The background is dental green, clinical, and in the violent caricaturing of “Dad” – the stumped corn-pip teeth, the flaccid length of the nose, the inflamed and stubbled skin – there is anger, even ridicule.
Consider the eyes/‘I’s: the eyes of the father are crowded by foreign eyes. In Gratrix’s own words: “obviously, I am literally embedded into the portrait myself, my father has the blue eyes, and I suppose I represent myself with the green. And the little bows are ways of inserting myself[.]”1Georgina Gratrix, from the online walkabout for ‘The Reunion: Georgina Gratrix’ at the Norval Foundation, (Instagram, 2021). Link available here: These small multiplying green eyes are stylised with big Looney Tune lashes. Eyes (or ‘I’s), at once nameless and yet coded as the self, float about the face like little hats of memory, intruding and disrupting the identity of the Dad-subject by the insertion of daughter-creator.
The ambiguous double bind of subject to artist becomes a desire to misrepresent, to ‘overdrive’ the representation to a point of intensity. In another example, The Collectors, the impulse to misrepresent is sublimated into a critique of the art-object in its bind to commodity-capitalism. In 80’s Mom and History of Dad, however, the misrepresentation is a result of personal proximity to the subjects. The symbolic embrace represented in these two paintings — the insertion of the self in the parents — is a coming up against the limits of representation beyond which the I is the parent, is the stranger. In this sense ‘The Reunion’ at Norval, with its missing centrepiece, opens up to a much wider inquiry into who gets to say “I” flippantly, and what multitudes of ghosts fret in the shadow of that entitlement.
Nine Weeks, is a procedural work of 63 watercolour self-portraits: the result of producing a single painting each day over the course of the first coronavirus lockdown in South Africa. Relevantly, the images of these portraits were shared on Instagram every day upon completion. Although watercolour doesn’t allow for the usual distortions of impasto that Gratrix so much enjoys, each small painting perpetually distorts the face of the artist: simplifying to the point of crude caricature, collaging the discards of failed paintings or overlaying perspectives.
In many instances the distortion techniques remind one of Instagram filters which digitally manipulate the image of the face, some reducing the features, others enlarge them, some have multiple eyes or make the face appear twisted. Looking at too many memes, for example, shows the artist reduced to a potato face, the features made miniscule the head round and blank. Gratrix calls the face “a fuzzy snow ball of a brain …[a result of] too much information”, Similarly, Starting to look like those around me, features a caricature of a dog’s face superimposed over the artist’s own. Not dissimilar to the infringing eyes in the portrait of the father, the dog’s face disrupts the Image-Repetoire of the artist’s identity. The face as dog resembles certain Instagram dog filters. In fact, ‘masking’ is a motif throughout the show. But pandemic masks, Instagram filters, and in the case of Filler Face, even plastic surgery, all revolve around the central problem: the artificiality of any ‘true’ face, any real identity.
The use of Dada techniques of disjunction — of collage, absurdity, automatism (a portrait every day) and the appropriation of the technological — are all methods of keeping the self at one remove from the work in order to say, as Rimbaud did, je est un autre (I is somebody else). Like Magritte, this manifests in manipulations at the first port of identification, the face, which becomes a site of contestation rather than recognition. The act of collaging the self, to impose bits of the rejected paintings of past-selves onto the present self, is to become cyborg. To inhabit and manipulate the online avatar is to become a body made up of parts, a self made up of others; a becoming-dog or becoming-potato, or in the case of Gratrix’s still lifes, as in All the Birthday Bouquet, a becoming-object. An amalgamated face, cartooned features, a simulacra of selves is what Gratrix’s portraits advocate. A painting as a series of 63 small selfs, uncapitalized ‘i’s, the diminished and diminutive selfs, a swarm of selfies.
It’s difficult to imagine a time in which a portrait, a photograph or painting, was valued on its likeness to the subject. Now, in our society of the spectacle, the image is more real than the self, the subject is valued on its likeness to the image (consider the passport or the profile picture). As the poet John Ashbery wrote, “so I am not wrong / In calling this comic version of myself / The true one”, and Gratrix seems to arrive at this same thought, the face has become a plastic thing, malleable and protean, and so identity has become unstable too. To paint with the automatic quality of a selfie, a kind of point and click approach to portraiture, is to conceptualise the face as having no features, no imposed organisation: remember how often the erased face appears in Gratrix’s work. The selfie is a reduction to a blank face, a simple potato, on which features, the nose, the eyes, are flowing affects multiplied and varying. In this way perhaps Gratrix’s rejection of traditional aesthetic values, is also an opening up to new values, half values, quarter values, values of the face without features, the body without organs, a symbolic embrace of the other.