Christiaan Conradie’s solo exhibition titled ‘Against A Narrow Heart’ features a collection of mesmerising paintings, with the majority of his subjects comprising of old, white, South African men as well as a few Mexican men (due to a three-year sabbatical that took place there). I find the way in which these old men are represented to be both compelling and thought-provoking because it is rare to see an old white male bathing in flowers, surrounded by beautifully painted birds or other floral elements. It is refreshing to see this depiction of masculinity, rather than the tough, unemotional, macho male commonly associated with men of these ages. However, before further analysing Conradie’s representation of masculinity, his painting technique was the first thing that caught my eye.
I was fascinated by his hyperrealistic paintings of the men, contrasted with some surrealist elements, creating an extremely complex and eye-catching composition. Conradie’s subjects are painted in lifelike detail but sharply contrasted with blurred, dreamlike and ambiguous parts in both the background and in some cases, the actual body (as seen in his piece Between Them Towns and The Truth That Laid Us Bare). The mixing of realism and expressionism allows the viewer to piece together the missing parts of the subjects body/surroundings. Ashraf Jamal describes Conradie as painting the subject not as “he/she imagines themselves to be, but what their bodies generate”.
Conradie builds his compositions using oils, watercolours, lights, as well as other found objects. When looking closely at his work you can see thick layers of oils, small pencil marks, glued pieces of yarn, wool, pompoms, amongst other things (as seen in his work Where All The Mice Behave Like Men). His piece Still Staring Towards The Sun depicts a man looking off into the distance (the sun perhaps – due to the name) and filled the frame with a variety of objects. These objects seem nostalgic and child-like, which was pleasing to see because the more you looked, the more items began revealing themselves, allowing the viewer to piece together a narrative.
If They Don’t Win depicts an old man, staring off into the distance in what seems to be a look of despair. His eyes are painted in detail, with every wrinkle noticeable, but the mouth has been defaced and the forehead has not been painted. His bright yellow shirt with light blue flowers contrasts the look of hopelessness in his eyes. The shirt is not painted in nearly as much detail as the face, which makes you wonder if Conradie has designed this shirt for the man (rather than paint his actual clothing). But why these flowers specifically? To me, they look like pansies, which are usually a symbol of remembrance and nostalgic love which could suggest his memory of a loved one or lover is fading away, explaining his look of despair.
Conradie’s subject matter reflects his findings from living in Mexico. He draws inspiration from the continual contrasting realities faced whilst there; creating works that are both down to earth yet spiritual and beautifully floral contrasted by a harsh bloody landscape. As Emilie Froment describes it, his work “references to serenity and violence, order and chaos, rationality and insanity, hope and despair; and this play yields a deep sense of vitality.” Conradie has depicted old South African and Mexican men in a uniquely visual manner. One which both questions how we construct our gendered reality of masculinity, and secondly allows for a more playful, exploratory mix between realism and expressionism when constructing his subjects.
This contrast both in the work as well as between the different artworks is one of the reasons I enjoyed this exhibition.