Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The strength of Port Elizabeth's art scene

Continuing my postings of art reviews I had published in the Herald, Port Elizabeth, during the latter part of the first decade of the millennium, these from October 2007 till April, 2008, present a cross-section of artistic endeavour in the area. (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 Brent Meistre's exhibition appeared on October 15, 2007. It was badly cut back so below I include the original.

IS photography fine art? On the strength of this exhibition, I’d say it is. Digital cameras have transformed the process, making it possible to shoot thousands of images at no real cost. And that sort of technology has enabled the likes of Meistre, a photography lecturer at Rhodes, to create what I consider the highlight of this exhibition, a “stop-frame animation” lasting over six minutes.

But I’ll get back to that later. The bulk of this show comprises black and white fibre-based prints primarily of the rural South African landscape, but with the key added factor that it usually bears the imprint of mankind’s presence. Others have done this before, but Meistre does his documentation in a skilful, tasteful way. Thus we have a selection of photographs of rocks, “Untitled (Engravings)”, into which messages have been scratched, some dating back to the early 19th century. “Columns” conisists of four photographs of beautifully textured columns, apparently the remains of a ruined house, which take on the likeness of a Greek temple. Elsewhere he focuses on rolls of fencing wire, close-ups of succulent plants, four views of boer-maak-‘n-plan “pad toe” signs,  paraffin lamps, drain holes in the bushveld, and animal bones either tied to fences or lying in the sun. There is an evocative series of three photographs looking down the tracks of railway lines. Another series focuses on the stairs and stoeps of farmhouses that have been demolished.

Then, more interestingly, he proffers some old railway tickets, lying on the ground.  SAS-SARS Fort Jackson, reads one. There is also a “ticket” for a “Lacy Panty, Flesh Colour, R9,99”. And, as one with a love for old stamps, I particularly enjoyed “Untitled (First Day Covers)”. One, dated June 17, 1984, is a black and white photograph of a Ciskei Republic cover for Migratory Birds, which all, according to the stamps, miraculously land in the tiny tinpot apartheid state. The other cover features Die Groot Krokodil, PW Botha, from November 2, 1984. It features two stamps with the snarling leader’s face, and the apartheid coat-of-arms.

But all this forms the backdrop to a series of three black and white films run on a loop.  The first, with the exhibition title, “Sans: A stranger who came with a book in the crook of his arm”, succeeds with its evocation of the SA landscape, though it includes irritating images of the artist slithering through the veld, which I found so nauseating when I first saw Mestre’s work. But even here there are lovely passages, particularly a scene when you travel down a water-filled sloot, surrounded by trees. The opening cloud sequences are also beautiful, as are images of aloes, which look so interesting in monochrome.

The second film comprises a field of about 30 rectangular images, which continually change while in the borders between them, the words of a poem are shown. But the finale really is most impressive. “When they came, we said we had left”, is the paradoxical title. But allow yourself to take this journey, of arriving and leaving, and you’ll be astonished at what is possible, visually, in the field of digital photography. It starts with you travelling along a parched plain following a black track left by something ahead of you. You encounter waves along the seashore, proteas swirling in the wind, a tranquil lake seen through razor wire, a railway line through steep cuttings, roads and tracks, feathers in foliage, a forest. Each scene blends seamlessly into the next. It is a dynamic, ever-changing world reminiscent in a way of William Kentridge’s animations. And for me the key point is where the focus is on a male figure – presumably the artist – in a tunnel. As the camera  homes in on his face, it disintegrates impressively, transforming into the next scene.

Many were sceptical when Meistre won this first biennial award, but this exhibition more than vindicates that decision. Try to see it.

Also published on October 15, 2007, was this review of a show by Louis van der Walt

This review of a show by Mien Greyling appeared on October 29, 2007

Veteran PE artists Derrick Erasmus, Christine Ross-Watt and Estelle Marais's show was reviewed on November 26, 2007

Esme Goosen was again to the fore in an exhibition reviewed on the same day, November 26

This review, probably badly hacked, appeared on October 12, 2007

This is from December 12, 2007

I got this letter into the Sunday Times Lifestyle supplement on January 13, 2008

Sue Hoppe was among the artists on this show, reviewed on February 28, 2008

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum has some fine historical works. This review appeared on February 19, 2008

Zukile Yalisa's exhibition was reviewed on March 17, 2008

The Egazini Outreach Project exhibition was reviewed on March 26, 2008

Leigh Voigt's exhibition was also reviewed on March 26

The poetry into art show came around again. This is from April 14, 2008

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