Jack Shainman Gallery
24.02 - 02.04.2022
Doubles is a new exhibition by South African artist Claudette Schreuders showing at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. This show (her seventh solo with the gallery, which has represented her since 2001) debuts a series of drawings of earlier sculptures as well as four new wood-carved forms. Born out of pandemic isolation, the show contains an interiority made visible through a self accompanied by, and attached to, an identical and gesture-mirroring twinned self.
Each of the piece’s titles are named for chapters in Russian Jewish writer Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, the story of her life with her husband, famed Acmeist poet Osip Mandelstam, who died en route to a Siberian gulag during Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937 after being charged with “counter-revolutionary activity.” There is a tenuous paranoia inherent to our relationship with ourselves as unreliable narrators, as traitors to our own values and beliefs. As such, there is a wariness in observing the forms that Schreuders creates: the figures’ eyes are simultaneously deadened and eerily alert, like eyes that follow in a haunted house, or symbolic of the omniscient and repressive NKVD responsible for the actions of the Stalin-era Soviet secret police.
In this doubled universe, our intimate and interior lives are made public and exterior—a relation between a person and society, rather than an internal tension. In Intruder (2021), a white-skinned female figure besmocked in a blue dress lies on a bed. Her doubled figure lies directly above her, face to face and toe to toe. Depending on one’s subjective experience of pandemic sleep, the figure could either embody an astral projection (a pleasant out of body experience) or a nightmare (like the demon sat on your chest, suffocating you whilst you sleep). Less ambiguous than the spectral figure visiting one’s sleep is Accomplice (2021) which, like Master Heinrich of Constance’s 14th century sculpture The Visitation that it echoes, depicts a tender and conciliatory gesture. While the original piece is a meeting between the newly pregnant Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with the son who would become John the Baptist, Accomplice is mundane, but no less evocative of divinity. Contrary to a nightmarish self, the points of contact in Accomplice are held hands; the other pair meets gently on the shoulder. Here is another relation to self and external space-place—one that represents inner peace, self-soothing, placidity, and resolution. But even in this relative quiet, the figures’ sightlines disquietingly intersect past one another. Peace is fleeting, incomplete.
In addition to religious medieval sculpture, Schreuders also derives aesthetic inspirations from West African carving traditions, Spanish portraiture, and wood carvings from Egypt and Japan. Synthesising these different inspirations, Schreuders attempts to draw out what Impressionist artists did: even in creating lifelike (as opposed to realistic) figures, she gestures constantly towards “la vérité intériure,” or subjective feeling. While simple visually, the humanoid figures in her pseudo-naïve style act as vessels, emotional surrogates even, for weighty interior lives, histories, vulnerabilities, and collectivized affectivities. But no show is more elucidatory of the subtextual leitmotif of Schreuders’ work than her 2017 show at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg entitled The Bystanders.
The show revolves around and derives its name from one central figure called The Guilty Bystander (2006). She, the bystander figure, is contemplative and far from at ease. She stands with her hands clasped behind her back, her feet shoulder width apart, an ultimately ambivalent posture that could represent contemplative reflection (as with a priest or other holy figure), or confident authority (as with a law enforcement officer). The body is open, denoting some comfort and confidence in her environment, but her eye contact is nervous and indirect. The almost pained stoicism of her facial expression divulges clear discomfort: she has something to hide. She might even be lying.
This is the question that lingers throughout Schreuders’ oeuvre: how many years can one continue to be a bystander? For how many years can an identity quite clearly rooted in time and space, in trajectories of local-international Eurocolonial power and native dispossession, continue to be elusive? To be clear, white people’s self-flagellating guilt is unnecessary, and altogether abandoning this political confrontation is a cowardly evasion of social responsibility. But “ambiguity,” a word that appears frequently in press releases describing her exhibitions, is similarly evasive in its shrouding of conclusive historical phenomena and identity formations: in its positioning of settler colonization, apartheid, and the inheritance of legacies of violence as incommensurable mysteries whose revelations are impossibly unwieldy.
She describes her artistic process, in part, by the following: “As soon as you make a figure, it has an identity, and it’s immediately a white person or a black person. To me, things aren’t that simple in South Africa. Everyone has an identity.”
But what does this mean in practice? Are we to pretend that the default identity is not – per Euromodernity’s creation of the human as Man – white, even in a country like South Africa where the racial supermajority is a still-largely deprived Black population? And what, too, does it mean to consider the ambiguities of “African identity” without reckoning with what this means for and about blackness, considering that the majority of Schreuders’ sculptural figures are racialized as white? To simultaneously make explicit her identity as a “white descendant of colonial settlers in Apartheid-era South Africa” as the foundational reference for the familial and interracial intimacies in her 2011 show Close, Close while continuing to cling to the uncertainty of “ambiguity” is to perform the funambulist’s tightrope walk Steve Biko describes in his liberalism-indicting “Black Souls in White Skins?” It is to “vacillate between the two worlds, verbalising all the complaints of the blacks beautifully while skillfully extracting what suits them from the exclusive pool of white privileges.”
Offered humbly as a non-South African outside of the complexities of post-1994 upheavals to the longstanding racial social order, there are many aspects of South Africanness that could be described as precarious or ambiguous. But as a matter of political honesty, whiteness is not one of them, unless it is a definition of ambiguity denoting multiple interpretations as opposed to a kind of indeterminacy that emerges in Schreuders’ work. Doubles conceives of a multivalent selfhood that is both familiar and not: it is disassociated and also intimately part of oneself; it is a peaceless psychic terror, but it is also stable and placating; it is simultaneously internally held and publicly circulated. But it is a deracinated notion of self that seeks to be universalisable, and so, is flattened. Whiteness is ambiguous because it is dynamic. and iIt cannot be grappled with as merely an aspect of identity because of its material, economic, and social implications. Rather than being represented through these doubled figures, whiteness remains a spectre haunting Schreuders’ work: a ghost image, to borrow from Hervé Guibert, made ubiquitously present through conspicuous absence.