What is modernism? The question is an old one – pertaining to shifts in art at the beginning of last century. Gerrit Dyman, the curator of a new exhibition, Assemblance, at the Absolut Art Gallery, isn’t exactly raising this question but forces viewers to think about it in relation to the work of South African art auction heroes  -  Peter Clarke, Andrew Verster, Walter Battiss, Norman Catherine and Ernst de Jongh. He places them in conversation with international artists such as Alexander Calder and Joan Miro, adding a few works into the exhibition produced by younger artists who are reviving modernist aesthetic such as Ben Eagle.

Dyman is new to the curating realm, which may explain why he is asking big questions about big art movements of big art names.  This former rugby player –cum art aficionado has taken over his father’s art business, moving it to Stellenbosch, which is a surprisingly busy art centre given how small the town is. Many galleries here cater for the tourists that flock to this picturesque hamlet. Fortunately, there is not a whiff of tourist art in Absolut Art Gallery.  The art on this exhibit is designed for locals or those who know which SA artists are worth collecting.  

Dyman defines modernism in the e-catalogue as a response to the “factual nature of the industrial age.” There are many other definitions, however, and modernism can be separated in periods – low and high. You could also simply categorise it as a rejection of art’s then broader function to relay reality faithfully and to revel in that which was specific to art it self, such as composition, colour, and representation. A sort of art for art sake.

Despite all this upheaval in art’s function, traditional genres such as still life and representations of women remained popular for modernists, though they did not go unchallenged.  As such this exhibition presents both genres.

The Verster works are easily the most desirable.  The three still life works are typical of this Durban-based artist’s aesthetic and approach. His fascination for patterns or patterned surfaces sees him turning this painterly genre into what could pass for a textile design with all the staple elements such as fruit, a table cloth and a glass vessel all suspended at different angles as if floating inside a cabin of space ship where gravity no longer holds sway.  A 1992 etching simply titled Still Life should probably be dubbed “animated life” given the heightened movement it articulates. Bananas, apples, flowers and leaves are thrown up in the air. In this way Verster literally gives the still life genre a good shake up, while making it interesting for the viewer to figure out and place the work. Verster isn’t serving up reality or using art as a mirror on the real world but rather working with the artifice of it, playing with art and design as ways of upending how we view reality.

Andrew Verster
Andrew Verster
Image: Supplied

In some regards the Verster work fits in well with the modernist slant of this exhibition, but he could easily be pegged as a postmodernist too – is he not rechanneling and perhaps even doing a pastiche of modernist art, challenging the intellectualism underpinning the composition? There is such playfulness and humour to his art. This may be the case with Christo Coetzee, the late artist who appears to be gaining in popularity – on auction but also is included in an exhibition in nearby Smac. His Malay Bride (1986) reads like a parody of Irma Stern’s fixation with Malay subjects.

Modernism is an ‘ism’ worth revisiting presently, given how artists appear to be returning to an obsession with form as demonstrated in the art of Eagle, a young artist whose slick abstraction is included in this show and is in conversation with the art of Calder, the American surrealist and Miro, Calder’s Spanish contemporary.  Thrown into this heady mix of artworks in vivid primary colours are a series of Catherine’s hybrid animal-human sculptures, which shown in the company of surrealists gives them a slightly different reading – they are no longer political or social political metaphors speaking of SA’s apartheid years. 

Image: Supplied

In contrast Peter Clarke’s Still Life of Pomegranates (1973) appears to conform to the modernist rubric so comfortably – it has a cubist feel. As with the Catherine works it is interesting to appreciate, in the context of global art movements rather than just as a testimony to our political history.

Still Life of Pomegranates (1973)
Image: Peter Clarke

Modernists yearned to be apolitical. This complicates how we might read South African art through this ‘universal’ modernist lens. Perhaps we need to think of an African modernism – art historians are presently working on evolving this idea. It is a difficult undertaking.

Assemblance is a rewarding show despite some of the mixed interpretations of modernism. Interweaving young unproven contemporary artists, such as Eagle, with the work of well-known names allows visitors to contextualise what is taking place in contemporary art now and trace its historical roots.

Assemblance shows at Absolut Gallery, Stellenbosch until May 20. Sponsored text. Corrigall is an art consultant. corrigall.org

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