Glen Carlou Gallery
10.09 - 05.11.2023
Trust not knowing. Your painting is talking to you. Let your art touch you. These sentences from a collaborative artwork by Katherine Spindler and Carolyn Parton remain in my mind after first walking through the exhibition Artwords. The large group show includes twenty-nine artists working across a range of disciplines. The exhibition is part of an ongoing project by curator Jean Dreyer that explores the entangled relationship between written and visual language. It is an ambitious exhibition and could have been overwhelming. However, the careful consideration of flow and space between the works enables viewers both to spend time with individual pieces and to draw connections between different works.
Trust not knowing.
Themes arise as I spend time in the space. Old knowledge. Lost languages. Broken communication. Things lost in translation.
The links between language and knowledge are explored in several pieces. The index lies at the heart of Elrie Joubert’s work, where the residue from previous projects is catalogued to produce a new artwork. In a similar way, Emma Willemse’s work, titled Reclaimed Archive, features a suspended frame stuffed with shards of paint and trailing lengths of string. Materials are reclaimed and reconstituted to create a new meaning in this ‘readymade’ archive. The Dewey decimal system embossed on the porcelain paper clay vessels made by Laurel Holmes is a delicate, almost unseen, reference to the loss of knowledge in the library fire at the University of Cape Town in 2021. These three works investigate the coding and recording of knowledge, making human attempts to store and record information seem obsessive and strange. The reference to past systems of cataloguing also highlights the subjective nature of knowledge and calls into question whose knowledge is valued and stored.
Your painting is talking to you.
Other works consider different forms of language. Klara du Plessis translates sound waves into visual language by transcribing the sounds as monochromatic linear prints. It is silent as I stand in front of the prints, alone in the gallery. I am looking at a sound I cannot hear. The lines have other connotations as well. They look like trees or a regimented plantation. The rhythmic language of the heart recorded in the screen above a hospital bed.
Other abstracted references to language or alternative ways of communicating can be found in Elize Vossgatter’s Heart on a Stick. It is a curious, suspended object made from brightly pigmented waxed thread wound around a slender tree branch. Part divination rod, part talking stick, the object is evocative of lost language systems such as the Inca messages consisting of knotted ropes.
Many of the pieces are suggestive of loss. Things that are untranslatable. Anton Birkenmayer presents us with two brass plates and four solid black prints, through which we view the raw materials of printmaking. The plates record nothing and withhold content from us. We must fill in the blanks. Strydom van der Merwe’s Pictograph is similarly cryptic but, instead of blankness, we are presented with rows of wooden sticks trimmed into what appears like cuneiform. It is as if we are looking at a script found in nature that we are incapable of grasping. Perhaps a language shared among birds who perch and nest in trees.
Jeanette Unite’s large paintings contain indecipherable fragments of text. Given the artist’s interest in mineral histories and her use of materials harvested from mining and industrial sites, these pieces serve as reminders of ongoing extraction of resources. The residual texts allude to ledgers. Mine records tell multiple stories depending on where you sit. Great fortune. Great misfortune. Great loss.
Let your art touch you.
Many of the works seem concerned with what cannot be expressed or clearly communicated. Maja Marx’s Midsentence appears like a pixelated scrap of text. The painting is part of a larger body of work that references handwritten letters passed down in her family in a language she cannot understand. The erasure of meaning is evoked by the abstracted marks on the canvas. When I stand back, the ghost of a letter appears, but I too cannot grasp its meaning.
Other works employ the visual language of dreams and liminal states. For example, Balekane Legoabe’s delicate paintings and prints are suggestive of dream states with floating animal figures overlaid with a shimmering layer of gold marks like rain. Telephone all the old people in your family serves as a reminder of our duties to the elderly but also warns of what is lost when older generations pass away. Indigenous knowledge. Mother tongues. Fireside stories. Old ways of being in the world. With the layering of shapes and forms, Legoabe’s work represents instability or a sense of inbetweenness.
Given the nature of a large group show, it is impossible to speak to the complexity of each artist and their practice. The show requires time and energy. A short curatorial text to contextualise the meaning of the title Artwords, or the larger project it grew from, would have helped the viewer navigate the exhibition. Many of the pieces are academic in nature and contain literary and other references. However, the show balances the serious with the playful, the academic with the spontaneous. It is a rich and thought-provoking exhibition and introduces a number of new names while recontextualising works by more established artists.
The overall impression left by the exhibition is the broad range of expression and highly personal vocabulary of each artist. Many of the pieces reference text and then withhold meaning. Perhaps this is where the learning is. Knowledge was once believed to make the world, and our place in it, feel more stable. In our current time of information saturation and polarised reporting, the exhibition calls us to let go of false certainty and trust not knowing.