06.05 - 10.06.2023
Consistent with its title, the series Juxtapositions, staged at Stevenson, places works side by side in a two-person exhibition. As a framework, it is a convenient rubric for structuring ideas by showcasing unexpected connections. The first iteration illuminated connections between the practices of Shine Shivan and Jane Alexander — Shivan’s ethereal figures hovered above Alexander’s hybrid sculptural forms in the fall of 2022 in the gallery’s Cape Town outpost. In its second iteration, Juxtapositions focuses on two artists for whom space and place are at the core of their preoccupations. Unathi Mkonto’s delicate geometric sculptures are placed in dialogue with David Goldblatt’s sober images of architectural structures around the South African landscape. The modest exhibition, staged in the gallery’s viewing room, attempts to offer a reflection on spatial politics.
Goldblatt represents (and thereby comments) on the world, while Mkonto uses materials that ground us in the everyday, but neither seems fully rooted in the real world. This mode is poignantly captured by German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, who wrote about artworks’ ability to “detach themselves from the empirical world and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity.” Goldblatt succeeds in building worlds through building grand narratives. A balanced shot of a street in Johannesburg — Monument to J. G. Strijdom, late prime minister of South Africa, Pretoria 1982 — captures a slice of South African history, while it also feeds into the fantasy of Johannesburg as a haunted city in ruin. Mkonto, on the other hand, is well-versed in building worlds through collapsing grand narratives, taking a lot of information and reducing it to something manageable. Mkonto has suggested that there is some narrative behind his works, but what captures the viewer is the starkness of line, volume and scale. He is committed to the truth of materials, making evident the methods of the artworks’ production — even as they are reimagined, the pieces of wood or cardboard retain their woodiness and cardboardness.
There’s something interesting in the naming of the works too. Goldblatt, well known for his meticulous attention to titles, gives us many empirical contexts to his works, while Mkonto moves us into the world of the hypothetical: A pillar, block and plane arrangement III or Room, scribblings, burial over a facade (installation as a collage I) and Defaced monument, clouds over fear and happiness (installation as a collage II). We are situated in an indefinite world: the specificity of the pillar, the facade, the monument, is unknown.
One could argue that the show, Juxtapositions: David Goldblatt and Unathi Mkonto, works because it fits squarely into modernist sensibilities that remain in vogue — clean lines, symmetrical compositions, no fuss. The trouble is that these clean aesthetics render the show viscerally pleasing without examining the fundamental disconnect between beauty and what the press release refers to as “a discussion on spatial politics and power.” To put it another way, Goldblatt’s images and Mkonto’s structures seem to beautify, rather than confront, the power structures they purport to trouble. Perhaps the starting point for referencing such power is to consider the positionality of both artists in relation to each other rather than the world out there.