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.