Self-fashioning in Apartheid-era Studio Portraits on view at the Walther Collection

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S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Family Portrait), 1974

For a women to style herself both in traditional male clothing and then sedate, proper female attire in the same photo shoot plays on gender boundaries even today; I did a double-take on finding such portraits in an exhibition of South African photography from the 1970s. The selection of black-and-white photography currently up at the Walther Collection Project Space, “Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa,” features insightful works taken by Singarum Jeevaruthnam “Kitty” Moodley in the 1970s and 80s. Kitty’s studio portraits allowed his subjects to model themselves as they wanted to be seen, exposing their hopes and aspirations. Implicitly they offer insight into the complexity of this particular context: the 1970s South African city of Pietermaritzburg and lives of some of its “non-white” citizens. Under Apartheid, these middle and working class people were classified as African, Indian, or Coloured–a legal status that would be reflected in the ID booklets that everyone was required to carry. Kitty, politically active and opposed to Apartheid, earned his living partially from ID photos, even as his studio became a place for political discussion and the modeling of more complex images of self.

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S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Three Men Dancing in a Line), 1975

Kitty’s vernacular photography transcends the sometimes stilted atmosphere of the studio. Boys dance ecstatically in modern dress; a female stands like an unsmiling statue in traditional clothing. The popularity of photography studios at the time in South Africa recalls the initial emergence of photography in the West, with Nadar’s studio in Paris and the fad of carte-de-visite. There is an informality and vitality to the rapidly shot images that was impossible 100 years prior, but these images similarly circulated in the private domain. Here, images were also served specific social purposes, such as the family album or a token for a boyfriend working in a distant city. What is on view is a self-fashioning that is perhaps fictional but not coerced; rather it presents how subjects wanted to see themselves. At some level though, cut off as we are from the subjects and place, we can only wonder as to an individual’s motivations.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Holding an Umbrella), ca. 1982.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Holding Umbrella), ca. 1982

Why did the unknown young woman want to be photographed in both traditional and men’s clothing? In the image above, the women dresses in a skirted outfit featuring Zulu beadwork, according to what would have been customary in her tribe. In the image below, she wears pants and poses next to a floral arrangement. In both her bare feet contrast with European umbrella. Kitty’s studio had a minimal backdrop of curtains, and a few props that reappear from portrait to portrait, such as the umbrella or a telephone. Commercial European goods served as synechdotes for modernity to the sitters who chose to use them. These two photos, like the abandon of the dancing boys, suggest the playfulness that was found in Kitty’s studio.

A newfound appreciation for African studio photography and vernacular photography brings these prints into an art context for the first time. Their history is fascinating and reflects the racist system that they were created under: a local museum curator bought the negatives of Kitty’s studio after his death, and then threw away a wide selection because it portrayed Africans not wearing traditional, ethnographically acceptable ways of dress and ornamentation but rather as individuals freely embracing modernity in different ways. An intern saved them in a garage until they were bought by the current New York-based owner.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Men's Pants), ca. 1982.

S. J. Moodley, Untitled (Woman Wearing Zulu Beadwork and Men’s Pants), ca. 1982

Seeing the works complicates our idea of the desirability of European modernity or what modernity looked like in South Africa: sitters appear not only equally comfortable in traditional garb and European dress, but consciously using them as signifiers. As Okwui Enwezor writes elsewhere about the work of Malian photographer Seydou Keïta: “the image is, above all, to be read as a pictorial sign of various representational intentions of the sitters rather than the objective, detached, autonomous practice of the photographer alone” (Events of Self: Portraiture and Social Identity, 2010, p. 33). This kind of freedom of self-fashioning would have been rare for the middle and working class patrons whose social lives were structured around the racist limitations of Apartheid. The contradictions inherent to these photographs, unlike those of “art photography,” are not shaped purely by an artist’s vision but are the result of a complex place and time, one that we have fascinating access to here. The collaboration of the photographer and the sitter gave private voice, and now documentary access to the viewer, of a changing South African identity which struggled with the movement away from colonialism, racism, and surveillance.

“Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa” is up at the Walther Collection Project Space at 526 W. 26th St, Suite 718 through September 3.

Phone Tag: Interview with Rachelle Sawatsky

Installation view, "Reincarnation Clash", China Art Objects, 2016

Installation view of “Reincarnation Clash,” China Art Objects, 2016

For this iteration of Phone Tag, I Skyped with the L.A.-based painter Rachelle Sawatsky from her home one morning, with the bright sun, chirping birds, and sound of traffic creeping in. Previous Phone Tag participant Monique Mouton knows Rachelle from their time studying at Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver, B.C., and connected us. Rachelle plays ideas about abstraction and figuration off each other in painted ceramic objects and writing in addition to paintings. Her recently closed exhibition at China Art Objects Galleries in L.A., depicted animals on fantastical journey described in poetic titles such as “The Animal Lover’s Guide to Tragedy/The Emotional Person’s Guide to Plot” and punctuated by high-hung shaped ceramic tiles dipped in watercolor. In this interview, the artist describes the fluid and generative way she moves between word and image, trusting an image, and her interest in the writings of Agnes Martin.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

***

LW: “So I know you have an exhibition at China Art Objects that went up recently. What have you got going on now?”

RS: “I’m in a show this fall, in Vancouver, at a museum, so I’m working on figuring out what pieces are going to go in that. I’ve been working on a series of new drawings that stem from Agnes Martin’s writings. I’ve been thinking about her work a lot, for several years, and how there seems to be a point of view, a perspective, but no body in her work. So I went on this internet trail and I found some early work she did. She destroyed most of her early work, but there’s some… a lot of it is figurative… some Greek and Biblical myths…but it still seems to obfuscate the body, the queer body in particular…. So, that is an interest of mine, but in these drawings I’m not using her paintings as a starting point, but her writings, and thinking about metaphysical language as a way to generate new ideas for imagery.”

LW: “I didn’t realize. Did she do a lot of writing?”

RS: “Yeah. There’s a volume of collected writings that are published. They’re feel super inspired by New Age and Eastern Philosophy, but she said that it isn’t specific to any religion. I’m going to go on a trip this winter, once it gets colder in the desert. Spend some time in the landscape where she lived and draw and write.”

LW: “Is this something that has been percolating for a while?”

RS: “I’ve been talking about it for years. And then I was like, I should just do it now.”

"Roulette" 2016 oil and flashe on canvas, 58 x 104 inches

Roulette, 2016, oil and flashe on canvas, 58 x 104 inches

LW: “Totally. Is she someone you think of as an influence? And, more generally, who has influenced your practice?”

RS: “Probably the painters that have influenced me the most would be Joan Brown, Agnes Peltin, and Maria Lassnig. I think all of them are interested in developing bodies of work or systems of articulation, systems of thought, around the emotional life… and thinking of metaphysical states and your personal life in the same sentence. Those have been some keystones for me. Also, I look at a lot of drawings by Rosemarie Trockel and Louise Bourgeois and Marisol.

For the most recent show I did—that’s still up at China Art Objects—I wrote a poem about being on a plane and imagining all the different people on it and what would it be like to suddenly become them and live their lives. This poem expanded into a narrative poem I wrote for the show that also had a plane crash where all the bodies reincarnated as animals. Then I made all these narrative paintings telling this far-fetched story. I had this celestial body of ceramic stars all dipped in watercolor that were hung all over the walls at different heights. I was kind of imagining a metonymic relationship between the two bodies of work, in that the watercolor ceramics are dipped so they have these horizon lines, this sense of the registration of the earth through the watercolor. And these paintings are kind of like interior space or exterior spaces, kind of ambiguous, and the whole feeling is like being on a plane, lightness and airiness….At the same time I was reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Animal-Lovers Book of Beastly Murder, about short stories from the perspective of animals who are kind of mistreated and have revenge killings on their owners…. So there is darkness in it too.”

LW: “Nice.”

RS: “Yeah. So, fiction is a big interest of mine, and artist’s writings. In this show, Patricia Highsmith is someone I was really thinking about and Joan Brown, too.”

"Reincarnation Clash" 2016 oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

Reincarnation Clash, 2016, oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

LW: “Have you always thought of yourself as an artist? As a visual artist versus a writer…do you distinguish?”

RS: “I was always into both. The first time I ever did art, the first memory I have about art, is when I was in a preschool program, when I was like 4 or something, and we had different activities but I never knew the names for them, and one of them was Cooking, and we made peanut butter and jam sandwiches, and the other one was Art, so we would paint. I always thought they were the same activity…doing messy things with liquid… I’ve always really gravitated toward making as a process of experimentation with materials.

I also wrote a lot of stories and poetry since I was a kid. I used to think of them as separate from my artwork. More recently, over the past few years, I’ve been using my writing as a generative process for working with imagery. Imagery is something that feels somewhat new to me. I think that it’s really through my writing that that has happened.”

LW: “Do you ever use text in your paintings?”

RS: “No. I think part of the reason I neglected to use my writing in shows before is that text sometimes has a very authoritative function. In relation to something visual, it’s comfortable for someone to read a text in a gallery and feel a sense of something explaining something. And I enjoy making things that might have an uncomfortable relationship to language, or more of a relationship to materials or physicality or another kind of poetics or objectness. For this reason I never used text alongside my work as I thought that it would interfere with this, but I’ve found through poetry I’ve been able to find different affinities.”

LW: “Yeah, I feel like you seen them differently, images and text, and it changes the dynamic to put them together, for sure.”

RS: “I’m interested in the strange compositional possibilities of it too, in editing…looking at different bodies of work, whether its drawing or ceramics or paintings, and kind of like working with the show in mind and writing to kind of compose the exhibition. For another show [at Harmony Murphy Gallery], I made a body of work called Stone Gloves, a series of drawings that were exploring emotional and psychological boundaries within the body. A lot of them also had animal and, like, ET imagery in them too, this kind of non-gendered bodiliness that I was interested in. Those drawings all had titles that made up the line of a poem. I’ve recomposed the poem and worked with it in subsequent exhibitions reinstalling the drawings in different ways. I think that it’s interesting to work with text  compositionally.”

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 20 x 21 x 2.25 inches

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 20 x 21 x 2.25 inches

LW: “That makes sense to me. Where are you now—are you in your studio?”

RS: “No, at home.”

LW: “I can hear the birds outside; it sounds very pleasant. Do you have a studio? What’s an ideal day like in the studio?”

RS: “Getting up really early. For the past show I meditated every day. That was a way to bring less intention to everything I made and to be open to whatever kind of free associative thing happened. So, that’s become a part of my practice. Just have no plans. To make things all day. Probably meet someone for a late lunch or a beer at a Mexican restaurant near my studio.”

LW: “Have you been in the same studio in LA since you’ve been there?”

RS: “This is the second or third studio I’ve had. It’s really great. One thing I really enjoy about being in L.A.—it’s quickly changing—it’s getting more expensive—but still at this point it’s manageable. I feel a lot of freedom here to have a large studio to myself and be able to make large work and to be able to also work outside because the weather is nice year-round.”

LW: “What about the ceramic pieces—are you able to make those…?”

RS: “I make some of those in my studio but I also work in another ceramic studio as well.”

"Heartbreak Confusion Disaster" 2014, chalk paster on newsprint, 20 x 24 inches

Heartbreak Confusion Disaster, 2014, chalk paster on newsprint, 20 x 24 inches

LW: “Do you think it’s better for an artist to be in a big city like L.A., where is getting more expensive, or to be in a smaller, quieter place where maybe the focus could be more on making?”

RS: “That’s a question I ask myself a lot. Personally right now I enjoy living in L.A. because I feel like there’s a lot of really great people here, who I have a lot of energy with. It’s nice to be in a place where you feel like you’re rocks rubbing against each other making sparks. I enjoy those stimulating interactions. There’s a lot of that going on in L.A. and I’m interested in a lot of artists working here. In that regard, L.A. works for me at this point. I imagine at some point in the future I’ll move somewhere quieter to work but for now, it’s really great.”

LW: “How was Vancouver?”

RS: “I visit there quite often and I have a lot of friends there. I feel like there’s a lot of creative exchanges that I still have there. The rents are super expensive, especially studio rent. I think it would really change the work I made if I were to live there.”

There’s also a lot of nature around there, which is really different and great. Here we have more desert, and there it’s a forest space. I used to spend a lot of time in the woods there – there are all these little islands off the coast and my parents have a cabin there –so I used to work a lot in the cabin.”

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 12 x 11 x 2.25 inches

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 12 x 11 x 2.25 inches

LW: “That sounds fantastic. Is that where you think you pull so many animals in your work from—from nature? Or is it more metaphorical?”

RS: “Well… I am influenced by the animals around me. Like, my cat passed away a year ago, and I think somehow I wasn’t intending to reimagine his reincarnation. But I just kept painting cat bodies. I didn’t realize it until I hung the show. But I also think there’s this other level of the imaginary, or, imagined beings. The imagery of metaphysical realms is something that’s kind of an intriguing challenge for me right now. Also, imagery that is  somewhat irreverent to abstract transcendental painting, which has a lot of formalism to it…”

LW: “Yeah, and heavy spiritual overtones…”

"Romance" 2016 oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

Romance, 2016, oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

RS: “Yeah, I’m imagining replacing those with dark humor instead. I think about giving a painting permission a lot. Allowing each painting to come into its own in its own way and not necessarily thinking about a style or a finish. To stay with the image, whether that’s this plane crash or something like that.. is more of a challenge than to imagine the painting expressing a continuity of an aesthetic style.”

LW: “Well if you’re trying to let go of control, do you do a lot of paintings and sketches, or do you kind of just paint on canvas and keep going?”

RS: “I use both drawing and writing in preparatory ways. Sometimes I’ll write a line and think ‘What if I painted this?’ And then I’ll draw maybe a little bit. I don’t think of it as losing control… it is more about trusting whatever poetic confusion the image holds. I work slowly and sometimes repaint a painting several times. The paintings in the show at China Art are very pictorial, and I was really into the idea of a kind of blind sincerity of illustrating a line. Sometimes my drawings come from a very different place, like, the aggressivity of something internal or anti-kind-of-formalness. So it’s sort of a fluctuation of a lot of different energies and forces.”

LW: “It’ll be interesting to see how this translates into Agnes Martin, who I only know through her paintings, but just seems so different in my mind…”

RS: “Yeah, I imagine it being really different. I’m thinking I’m just going to pretend I’ve never seen anything she made.”

LW: “But for this upcoming show in the fall, you’re working more with existing work?”

RS: “Yeah, I am. I’m making an installation, drawings, and the ceramic wall paintings I’ve been doing. And then I’ve also recently been experimenting with screenprinting my chalk pastel drawings onto ceramics, so then there’s another element where some of the ceramics start to feel photographic –some of them are made with paper clay and with watercolor–they feel like paper. Or, slightly sculptural as the edges are all painted, as if they are canvases that has messed-up painting on the sides.”

LW: “Great, thank you for participating in Phone Tag.”

RS: “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

LW: “Yes, likewise!”

Indirect and Unsettling: “False Narratives” at Pierogi Gallery

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones 2012, Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones, 2012. Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches.

A lady in a dress the color of a Madonnas, its rich folds of blue against the crumbling texture of a pale wall. Her hands clasped in a lady-like manner in her lap. Her tissue thin grey medical mask awkwardly covers the front of the face, where there should be sight. This photograph by Nadja Bournonville and its blinded subject opens the excellently strange group show “False Narratives” at Pierogi‘s new Lower East Side location, appropriately enough as it thematizes the potential for brokenness, puncture, and error beneath a deceptively smooth surface. Bournonville’s body of work takes the invention of hysteria as its subject matter, asserting that Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot largely created the disease with the technological aid of photography in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Bournonville represents the spectacle of this endeavor in poetic images of the anonymous female restrained by science and studies of playful pseudo-medical machines that recall the work of Eva Kotatkova.

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010, Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010. Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel.

The detailed backstory, rooted in the imagined violence of another time and place, that underlies Bournonville’s photographs resembles the approach taken by Tavares Strachen in his pair of matching windows set into the gallery wall. Strachen’s duplicate white-framed windows were created with precise breaks and the gallery floor is littered with broken glass below. He modeled them on a specific window in a disused industrial building in Rhode Island. There, the artist actually replaced existing windows with matching broken ones. This discreet gesture for noone becomes immediately visible in the gallery space. Paradoxically, while the work becomes more clear, it also becomes less pertinent to the viewer, far removed from the original context. Yet the work takes on new meaning in the gallery space, accentuated by the title that refers to it as a diptych. Painting has long been credited with providing a view onto an imagined vista; here, the cracked glass presents only the gallery wall and the dim reflection of the peering viewer’s face.

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004, Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004. Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches.

One can more easily draw a formal similarity between Bournanville’s photographs and the “Linear X” body of work by Brian Conley. Both present strong photographs in delicate palettes emphasizing texture and nuance. Both track down obscure paths with rigour: Bournanville, a historic medical and cultural phenomenon, while Conley applies his investigation of Linear X markings as if he were a scientist studying remnants of an ancient language rather than the stray markings of a beetle that he found on a stick in the woods. Conley’s work expands across the room with a glass vitrine featuring loose pages and a display of the artist’s book on the subject (which mimics a scientific volume), a corner of huddled sticks, and photographs and plaster molds along the walls. Conley’s premise, rooted in a known lie, is on one hand futile as a way of knowing the world and on the other creates an intriguing parallel universe.

Installation view of Brian Conley's work

Installation view of Brian Conley’s work

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches.

Unlike these other works, rich in backstory, Roxy Paine’s diorama offers you no such guidance. Instead this fabulously constructed miniature beckons you from the far wall as you walk in, brightly lit as if by fluorescent light and featuring a prototypical American conference room. It brightness and skewed perspective to create the convincing illusion of scale hurt my eyes up close as I tried to mine its details to learn more. The scene is resolutely banal and rejects any narrative. Empty spaces maintain a psychological resonance when presented to a viewer looking in, or at least an air of expectancy. It highlights the dourness of industrial grade carpet, overpowering fluorescent lighting, stained ceiling tiles, the cold metal of folding chairs, and middling hot Folgers coffee, but to unclear purpose. By similarly indirect means as the other artists in the show, Paine tells a story, only his is seemingly without a plot or characters.

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012, Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012. Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches.

Enigmas and ruptures smoothed over by a cool perfection make for a surprisingly cohesive summer show from the disparate group of artists. Catch it while you can. Pierogi has regular gallery hours through the end of July and then by appointment through August 12.