Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Where are these paintings?

When I completed my third-year examination for my National Diploma in Art and Design at the East London Technical College in 1977, these are the two paintings I did - one a semi-abstract "composition painting" and the other a realistic "figure painting". These were sent off somewhere - no doubt Pretoria - to be marked. Well I passed painting, but now, some 36 years later, I am curious about what became of them. The rumour at the time was that the works were destroyed. Surely they could have sent them back to us after being marked? The canvases were taken off the frames and rolled up. Anyway, as things stand, these pretty poor photographs are the only record I have of works done when I was 21. And there is a story behind the first one.

I think we had about a week to do both our composition and figure paintings. This was about a year after the June 16, 1976, Soweto uprising against apartheid. The country was still simmering with unrest a year later as the ruthless apartheid state was met by growing resistance from the oppressed black majority.

Anyway, up till I wrote - well, painted - my exam, I had stuck to fairly non-representational works. Most were abstracts. It was a hard time to be an artist. People talk about post-Modernism, but to me that is meaningless. Because Modern art really encompassed everything including Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Braque, Picasso, Mattise, Marc, Dali, Chagall, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Munch, Pollock, Warhol ... And that's just scratching the surface, although encompassed in those names are some of the greatest art works ever produced. So what does one do in the wake of such innovative brilliance? The art world has been floundering through a crisis of identity since about the 1970s, after Warhol questioned the very purpose of art, turning advertising and celebrity culture into art. Since then, I have personally found very little to enthuse about among the smattering of supposed great artists of the latter 20th century and the start of this century. A return to the age-old art of drawing seems to be what we all should do. There seems to be nowhere else to go. Digital images are two a penny, but computers can't draw, or paint. The traces on paper or canvass, in wood, clay or bronze, of the art-educated human hand remains of paramount importance. And let there be a return to sincerity. There has been far too much gimmickry in the art world of late, with so-called installations - which are all about style, but not too concerned with substance - being totally overrated.

But that's by the by. In the above work, as a political activist in my own small way, I must have been heavily influenced by the white-on-black violence the nation had just been witnessing (TV had only just been introduced). So initially I painted a rather stylised, almost childlike, picture of a row of green policemen, with dog-handlers behind, shooting red people. I had deracialised the image, making it a universal sort of massacre, but placing it in SA by virtue of the clenched-fist salutes, the shanty town on the left, mine dumps at the top and Joburg-type skyline to the right. Then, as the week wore on, I took the palette knife to the thing and must say, looking at it now, I am rather pleased with the end product. The toy-like figures are still discernible, but there is also some nice paint texture and a fairly dynamic composition. And what of those spirit-like figures rising into heaven on the left?

When it came to life drawing and painting, our art school head, Jack Lugg, would usually get a black man or woman to pose - but rarely naked. However, on this occasion, the model was indeed naked. That, in a sense, was also a political statement.