Due to botched timing, I find myself on a Red-eye headed from Cape Town to Johannesburg to shoot a walkabout with Pauline Gutter. Filming is irksome, especially when stressed – stop-repeat-delete-repeat. Smoke and mirrors, filmmaking is far removed from Gutter’s world. Based on a homestead in the Free State, hers is a world consumed by hardship, culling, ‘classing’, a term as seamlessly applied to the rating of bulls as it is to women in a local reality show in which a farmer searches for a bride. Gutter laughs. She is no card-carrying feminist. What drives her is the bondage of Man and Beast. Her paintings, many vast in scale, are all about bodies – birds, monkeys, bulls, maggots, hyenas, vultures. Austerity clings to her vision of our mortal coil, in which life begets death begets life in an eternal, monstrous, and sublime return.
While others paint pictures as objects, Gutter draws us into a grinding vital world in which the physical and primal are one. Ochre – or some leached yellow – is the dominant tonal register, the colour of Africa’s arid zones and dust storms. The painterly affect is gritty, the mark making feverish, as though control was secondary to a loss of control. We see what she has made – a rooster like a morning sunburst astride an arid plain, a monkey giving us the finger, two bulls at war, a gutted bird with claws akimbo like the walking dead. Her paintings are never merely representational. Instead, we are driven into life’s churn.
Federico Garcia Lorca’s description of duende is fitting – ‘a power, not a work … a struggle, not a thought’. ‘Duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet’. An electrified force-field, Gutter’s way of seeing and living in the world is snarled in a potent ‘struggle’. The density of the layering – impasto is too neat a descriptor – reveals the intensity of the painter’s movements, the way she attacks a painting, what she forces into being. A trained ballet dancer, Gutter understands the importance of brutal discipline, but, far more, she also understands the criticality of release, of flight. Gutter’s is a world that is animistic and animalistic. Choreography, as Delacroix also well knew, lies at the core of great painting – it lashes and releases. What fascinates Gutter is how everything spoils, ruins, dismembers, atomises, in the instant of optimal expression.
Anish Kapoor’s view, indebted to Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime (1729-1797), offers a further clue – what matters is ‘the sense of darkness that we carry within us, the darkness that’s akin to one of the principal subjects of the sublime – terror’. It is the sublime which Gutter inherits, and translates in an African world. For her, however, it is the regenerative power of darkness, wired through German Expressionism, that remains a dominant force in South African painting. This raw-knuckled expressive inclination has everything to do with the irresistibility of terror. In painting in particular, it is a technique that defines our subconscious DNA – the bastardy of our culture, our ruinous legacy, and the stricken awe in the face of our mortal coil. Which is why Pauline Gutter is Beast … Man … Heat … Shadow … Death … Life.
From ‘Primordial’, Gutter’s show at the University of Johannesburg’s Art Gallery, I moved, the next evening, to Everard Read’s CIRCA Gallery. It is a building as conceited in its design as is the show, by Michael MacGarry, which it housed, titled ‘Superstructure’. Well known for his moniker, All Theory No Practice, McGarry is a conceptual artist who traffics in things. His is a world denatured, engineered, made up of malformed assemblages which chillingly remind us of the death of the auratic in the age of mechanical reproduction – the nullity of mystery. For MacGarry, the exhibition, made up of harsh metal structures placed on a soft creamy carpet – the dissonance intentional – is ‘a stage set for a retail environment’. The remark is barbed – the artist speaks always with a forked tongue – because what interests McGarry is the obscenity of consumption in a post-industrial historical moment, in which something – call it art – devoid of use value, emerges as the sign of our excessive times.
If retail amounts to the ‘corruption of self-expression’, be it the expression of the maker or consumer, then what is the nature of the exchange? Is it a mockery, some metastasized perversity? Is this MacGarry’s point? A metal hoarding once held a painting, but MacGarry removed it – because he ‘hates painting’. What we are left with is a gutted metal grid. A sign, in Mandarin, reads Hollywood, another, made of discs of looping celluloid, is a nod to an ‘intensely terrible film, I Dreamed of Africa.
It is not media but mediatisation that is MacGarry’s target, and Africa’s cravenly compromised relation to it. His sculptures are monstrous ready-mades. An mk47 segues into a limp petrol nozzle, a petrol can morphs into a guitar, which for MacGarry is ‘a luddite’s response in an HD world’. It is this mashing of crudity with high definition that signals the artist’s intent. His take on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – ‘imaged to death’ – is a pixelated reconfiguration made from Burger King and McDonald’s wrappers. Why are we still fixated with still lifes, he asks, ‘why paint domesticity’? What is private, what public, in a world in which binarity, and the dialectic it once brokered, is naught?
MacGarry is as revolted by our infantilisation in a post-industrial world, and, all importantly, the role of the art world in perpetuating this infantilisation. One could read the entire show, on two floors, as a ‘doom scroll’ or marker for our ‘obsessive intake of unhappy news’. If this is the case, if what MacGarry gives us, regurgitates back to us, is our obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with our negation, it is because we cannot live without knowing the extent of our extinction. DOA is a fitting descriptor – art dead on arrival. ‘You cannot walk through the exhibition without thinking of the artist’s take on Africa’, says Mark Read, Circa’s director. If anything, McGarry’s Africa has been hijacked by Capital. It is an Africa far removed from Gutter’s bleached plains. Though violence, and the fight for renewal remains in both worlds, the one primordial, the other superstructural. If MacGarry’s vision is entropic – about ‘a corrupted world returning to zero’ – it nevertheless asks us to reassess its value. His totemic assemblages are riveting in their banality.
It’s my last night. After a taxing film shoot and two exhibitions, the one sublime, the other abyssal – though it’s in fact hard to separate these states – I finally needed to drink. My Uber drops me off at a hole in the wall in Melville. The bar is called Smoking Kills. Like the MacGarry show, it’s keenly attuned to the death instinct. The patrons are huddled cheek-by-jowl, caught in a fretwork of sparkling spittle. More dance macabre than duende, I’m immediately reminded why the Third Wave is upon us, and why, as Edmund Burke, darkness is akin to both terror and exultation. If anything has spurred me to have my first covid shot, in an Apostolic church on the Cape Flats at 7am tomorrow, it’s Smoking Kills.
But, neurosis and stress aside, it was also in that bar that I met Boemo Diale, a young artist, aged 21, currently with the Kalashnikovv gallery, who, in the midst of a pandemic aspires to ‘flourishing aesthetic ecosystems … and a regenerative consciousness’. If looking at art in established forums is a pleasure, meeting an artist out of the blue is exhilarating. Trawling through her Instagram page I sensed something at once commonplace and unique: commonplace, because its theme was the black body, unique, because of its take. It is true that Matisse is a profound influence, the root of their stylisation and movement, and yet, it felt I was in the midst of a rare talent as keenly attuned to light as she is to darkness. Unlike Burke, Diale’s darkness harbours no terror.
‘I’ve experienced trauma, but I’ve been happy, I cannot but be happy’, says Diale. This exultation is everywhere in her mixed media works. Cognisant of the ‘privilege’ that comes from her relatively affluent mixed cultural inheritance, she is as acutely aware of the trauma of schizophrenia which afflicted her mother. Her infectious positivity however prevailed, reminding me of Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze’s inspiring reconceptualization of schizophrenia in Molecular Revolution and Mille Plateau. That Diale’s DJ name is Social Lubricant underscores her aesthetic and social vision. That her first name, Boemo, means to ‘stand in’ in Tswana, ups the ante. Here is an artist who seeks to connect us, and, so doing, defy attrition. Against the commodification of the black body, she has chosen duende – art as ‘a power, not a work … a struggle, not a thought’. Unlike MacGarry or Gutter, hers is a grace that comes without destruction. The question remains: What challenges awaits Boemo Diale? How different is the world she creates from that we find in the starkly differing worlds of Gutter and McGarry? If hers is a world neither primordial nor superstructural, then what is it? Immanent? And can one in fact make such clean distinctions? Surely the point is that each artist, in very different ways, operates as a ‘social lubricant’? Surely what they all gift us are the challenges we all continue to face?