From 8 October to 3 December, the Standard Bank Gallery will host the fourth and final instalment in its series of exhibitions based on the four elements of water, fire, earth and air.
In considering how works of visual art might represent an ‘invisible’ element, the curators of Air: Inspiration – Expiration have drawn on diverse artistic traditions, styles, methods and media.
‘Air’ is interpreted here as wind, sound, breath and spirit; it is associated with birds and insects, with aeroplanes, with clouds, with climate, with industry. The chronological scope of the works collected extends from the ancient to the postmodern – from San rock artists to contemporary South African arts practitioners. There are also various items taken from the African art collections of Standard Bank and the University of the Witwatersrand, including ornately carved musical instruments from southern and central Africa, and crowns and coffins from West Africa.
The exhibition also explores the relationship between art and science, demonstrating the connections between the quirky history of scientific analysis or experimentation and changing artistic practices. A number of the artists tackle pressing sociopolitical, economic and environmental concerns.
The artists exhibited in Air: Inspiration – Expiration include Penny Siopis, Robyn Penn, Jackson Hlungwane, Gerhard Marx, Karel Nel, Tito Zungu, Lyn Smuts, Nina Liebenberg, Samson Mudzunga, Walter Oltmann, Lyndi Sales, Sandile Zulu, Mary Wafer, Madeline Groenewald and Christine Cronjé. Air: Inspiration – Expiration is curated by Cyril Coetzee, assisted by Robyn Sassen.
Curator Cyril Coetzee is a largely figurative artist with roots in both European and African traditions. His multilayered, emblematic and chromatically rich oil paintings first emerged in the company of other neo-expressionists and figurative post-modernists who received media attention in South Africa during the 1980s, in the context of the quest of young South Africans to find a voice in the stifling atmosphere of apartheid.
Coetzee is deeply interested in the meeting and cross-pollination of cultures, beliefs, mythologies and histories. Both intensely personal, yet often reflecting contemporary social events and concerns, his works make striking use of the human figure as a vehicle of expression and, sometimes, parodic comment – aspects related to his ongoing interest in portraiture. Coetzee is assisted by arts writer, academic, book artist and printmaker, Robyn Sassen.
Penny Siopis is foremost a painter, although she frequently works with video and installations. Siopis’ work is marked by three interests, the physicality of paint, the accumulation of found objects (including video footage), material memory, and the politics of the body. She has also continually engaged with the shifting social and political situations in South Africa.
There is a sense of intimacy and personal closeness of experiences in the narratives of Siopis’ works, however, they do bridge over to a wider global social context and how the viewer relates to the fragility of the subject. Siopis has had a longstanding interest in what she coins ‘the poetics of vulnerability’. The juxtaposition of associations, history, femininity, as well as the traces and the repositioning of the past into the now through collective memory are what appear as you submerge into the worlds Penny Siopis creates.
Jackson Hlungwane combines traditional elements from his Tsonga heritage with those of his Christian beliefs in his personalised spiritual philosophy. These ideas are also the source of the images and the inspiration for his sculptures. He only became widely known for his work when he was in his 60s, after the art collector Ricky Burnett arranged for his sculptures to be included in two major exhibitions in 1985 and 1989.
Hlungwane’s subject matter ranges from spoons, sticks and bowls to altars, thrones and monumental fish, as well as other Christian-derived iconographies such as Adam and Eve figures and lions. Burnett writes that Hlungwane’s work can be characterised by its range of scale: ‘from the minute and tender to the grand and monumental.’ He describes his works as having a sense of ‘sculptural lyricism’; his ‘cubist volumes, [gouged] edges and improbable conjunctions and balances’ are indicative of his unique creativity and ‘compulsive vision’. His work in wood continues a long tradition of African sculpture, incorporating a fusion of Shangaan symbolism and Christian religious motifs throughout his oeuvre – often displaying a sense of humour, such as in the sculpture ‘Christ playing football’.
Walter Oltmann’s main area of focus is sculpture, and more particularly in fabricating woven wire forms, which sometimes reference local craft traditions. He has researched and written on the use of wire in African material culture in this region and is deeply interested in the influence of these traditions in contemporary South African art. He has had numerous solo exhibitions with the Goodman Gallery and has created several large-scale commissions for venues such as the Zeitz Sculpture Garden in Segera, Kenya.
Robyn Penn is primarily a painter who also draws and prints. Her work is represented in collections in multiple countries. Penn is interested in natural processes of transformation and dissolution, and has carried out intensive and highly detailed studies examining rapidly changing sea waters and cloud formations, as a form of the air element, amongst others. Her work both captures and resists the inherent transience of these natural phenomena.
In a pre-millennial moment when our real spiritual consciousness is often as nourishing as fast food, Karel Nel’s work seems somewhat anachronistic yet strangely confluent with a current interest in the mystical far-left of physics. In his work, art meets science meets spirituality in attempting understandings of the cosmos. Nel works primarily in large-scale drawings and land art projects and even larger corporate and public commissions. Tracing the process and products of his ‘mind’s eye’ is fundamental to the artist’s work. Nel views mental images as a ‘blueprint’ we project onto the world to make something ‘take place’ with equal effect and counter-effect on ourselves and those around us.
Lyndi Sales is an artist who explores themes of perception and vision as well as connectivity. She strives to create in the audience a corporeal response – a feeling of being in one’s own body, to ‘bring people to their senses’. In her work Sales is invested in driving into the present, seeing it as a mysterious, elusive and mutable idea.
Sandile Zulu combines rural organic materials and metropolitan debris to create his unique abstract images. Dubbed a visual explorer, Zulu’s work is marked by an overt experimental approach to the process of art-making. Investigating the visual and metaphysical interconnectedness of all things, Zulu’s work gives expression to his wide-ranging interests in biology, botany, history and philosophy and his obsession with patterns and harmony. His preoccupation with the ‘imaging of order’ is materialised through the constancy and change of the natural processes of weathering and fire damage in his work.
For more information on the Air: Inspiration – Expiration exhibition, please visit the Standard Bank Arts Facebook page.