Monday, May 14, 2012

Writing for the love of art

Between April and October 2007 I was a busy lad, on the Herald newspaper. Today there is no dedicated fine art writer, with the cabal of academics, who effectively had me ousted because they wanted to do the job, contributing reviews only very rarely. The following crits were published over and above the many previews I also contributed, which in turn was over and above my "day job" as a night sub-editor on the same newspaper. As someone who has laid out more news pages on this paper than I'd like to even think about - sometimes as many as10 a night through the first decade of this century - I realise that most stories have to take a cut. And so it was with my reviews, which were very rarely run to length. So if they read strangely, I suspect the editing may not always have been that sensitive our judicious. (To read these articles, hold down shift and left click and they come up larger. Click again on the image and it gets larger still.)

This review of a show by Greg Schultz appeared on April 23, 2007

David Moss's show was reviewed on May 9, 2007

Considered the doyenne of art in Port Elizabeth, this review of Mary Rose Dold's show appeared on May 10, 2007

Tossie Theron started the No Signatures idea. This review is from May 21, 2007

This show, including works by Andre Brink's son Anton, was reviewed on May 22, 2007

Margaret Harradine starred in this show. The review is from May 31, 2007

Alison Williams burst on the scene for a few months. This is from June 19, 2007

Another Annual Exhibition reviewed. This is from July 18, 2007

Port Elizabeth lends itself to art. This appeared on July 19, 2007

Guy Rogers is a colleague on the Herald. His Elephant's Ear column is often superb. I put together a book about my birding experiences (self published) and he worked a few paragraphs about it into the end of this article, which appeared on July 19, 2007. The piece concludes below

I only self-published 30 copies of my birding book, referred to at the end of this article. However, I am busy slowly putting the chapters on a blog, called Birding About the Bush, which is at

This review of an Alida Stewart show appeared on July 26, 2007

Esme Goosen again stole the show on a group exhibition. This was from August 6, 2007

This review appeared on August 13, 2007

Standard Bank Young Artist for 2007 Peter Hugo's show was reviewed on August 13, as well

Leora Farber's zany show was reviewed on August 14, 2007

The MTN Collection was reviewed on August 30, 2007

Marius Lourens's show was reviewed on August 30, 2007

Villia Offrman's exhibition was critted on September 24, 2007

Then this group show was reviewed on September 27, 2007

Greg Kerr, emeritus professor of fine art at Stellenbosch, made PE his home, and showed some of his superb works. This, severely hacked back, appeared on September 27, 2007. Below is my original review

A GOOD painter has the ability to present everyday things in an altered way – and the better the painter, the more interesting the form of presentation.

A small part of one of this vastly experienced artist’s latest works, “Sarah”, illustrates that point perfectly, if you consider how the face of the aged man in the distance on the left-hand side of the work has been painted. The shaded area is simply green underpainting, with the canvass showing through. For the tinted parts catching the light, he has used a couple of strokes of pink and cream. Suddenly, through the alchemy of painting, a face miraculously appears. It is something you cannot achieve through any other medium.

This exhibition spans five decades, with the first work done in 1960, when the artist was 10. It is a watercolour, “The Battle of the Bismarck”, and was kept framed by his father and only discovered upon his death. Even this shows promise. But this is not a retrospective. All the other works are by the artist as a fully trained professional, and date mainly from the 1980s till the present.

Having settled at Schoenmakerskop a few years ago after retiring as head of art at Stellenbosch University, Kerr’s works are largely figurative, though in recent years he has discovered the beauty of Nguni cattle, which have become a favourite subject.

There are, as a result, several Nguni paintings, such as the impressive “Vusalela”, a large oil where the starry universe seems to pervade the hide of the animal, covering it with a haze of yellow and pink dots.

His adroit brushwork is much in evidence in Hustler (2004), a “portrait” of an Nguni, it’s white head with pink and cream shadows seen against a green background.

Before the Ngunis, his forte seemed to have been a variety of weird and wonderful interiors featuring figures in various forms of, if not debauchery, then rather interesting behaviour. How he comes up with the ideas one can only guess, but it is in their execution that he is tested and found to excel. Take “Terrace, Bothasfontein”, from 1988. Here a gust of wind blows a curtain towards a woman, almost topless, seated on a red chair. Behind is a beautifully painted patchwork landscape, which is being viewed by another female figure, on the right.

The 19th century “national suicide” of the amaXhosa is given a foreign twist in “Nonqawuse and the Russian”. Here he mixes up his styles, with the young woman shown in bright, almost flat colours, while the male figure is a subtle range of realistic textures. The effect is stunning.

Equally stunning is “The Integral Calculus” (1999), which, as I told him when I visited the show, reminded me of the Blue Meanies in that classic Beatles animation, “Yellow Submarine”. Here, again beautifully painted, a male figure on the left takes on bird-like qualities – including a beak and feathers – as the female figure on the right recoils from his jabbing finger.

Among his most recent works, Aphrodite Rising (2007) is the closest he seems to have got to being inspired by the sea at his doorstep. In a lovely paradox, the top half of the headless female nude’s torso is shown above the water, with waves lapping against her. While waves only break in shallow water, the rest of her body is shown green within the dark depths of the ocean. A yellow strip divides the two worlds.

I could go on and rave about any number of other works on show. Do yourself a favour and see it for yourself.

Some superb artists have worked at the art school at NMMU, formerly UPE, over the years. This appeared on October 1, 2007. It was also cut back. Below is my original

WITH art works spanning over 100 years, this exhibition reveals how Port Elizabeth’s art school, in its various forms, has played a key role in shaping the city’s cultural identity.

The school’s first principal, Frank Pickford Marriott, served from 1903 to 1925. His “Diadem” (1904) is a beautiful portrait of a woman in the Art Nouveau style, using an inlay of mother-of-pearl.

There are other iconic works form some of the “old masters”, including “The Searchers” (1966) by former lecturer Joan Wright. This is painting at its finest, as a group under umbrellas brave the elements in their search.

Another “great” from the old days, Betsy Fordyce, who lectured from 1950 to 1969, is also represented – via a poignant watercolour, “The last little house” (1975), which shows part of South End after the apartheid bulldozers razed the area.

This art school, which later fell under PE Technikon before unification as the NMMU, produced some incredible characters, not least of them Fred Page, who probably better than anyone else, used Central’s unique 19th century architecture to its full potential. A black-and-white linocut, Chapel Street (1960) shows that even then this part of the city was decaying.

Hunter Nesbit, who was director and head of department at the school from 1969 till 1994, is well known for his stained glass, but here he is represented by a large contemplative painting, “Reflection” (1976), which shows a figure within the reflective facade of the art department.

And then there was Hilary Graham, a senior lecturer at the school from 1972 till 1983, who later left for Fort Hare. “The artist turns his back on the bay” (1990) seems to record the moment he did so. It is a lovely painting, done with virtuoso brushstrokes. While a group of apparently “poor whites” huddle on the Donkin Reserve, with a windswept harbour behind, the artist, canvases and brushes in hand, assumes superman status as he prepares to head inland.

Hylton Nel, Anton Momberg, Robert Brooks, Norman Kaplan, Charmaine Haines, Thys Cilliers, Alexander Podlushuc, Meshack Masuku. . . the list of names is extensive and reads like a veritable who’s who of Port Elizabeth’s best artists over the past 50 years. But there are also works by younger artists on show, such as 2007 student Peter Campbell’s “Boot”, an incredibly realistic gelutong carving of a boot, right down to the loose laces, and Andrietta Wentzel’s “Aspects of the dark other” (1996), a group of about a dozen totem pole-like tree trunks, each of which incorporates elements like antelope horns, hides and bones.

This is a stunning record of an art school’s impact on a city and is not to be missed.

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