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Norman Catherine: Chaotic, fascinating and never dull

Back in the 1980s, Sue Williamson described Norman Catherine as ‘one of the hardest working artists in the country,’ which comes across clearly in the massive body of work he has produced over the years. In media ranging from airbrushed works, to prints using a wide range of techniques; paintings; sculptures in everything from found media, painted wire and fibreglass to monumental bronzes; to a graphic novel and to tapestries with Margaret Stevens. There seems to have been very little that Norman Catherine hasn’t done. Norman Catherine is also currently working in mosaics with Marina Ehlers of Mosaic Arts.

‘I go from one thing to the other,’ he says. ‘I approach my work in a lot of different ways, from normal flat paintings to three-dimensional works or a combination of the two… from the mid-90s I got into a lot more sculptural works, although I did do sculptural works during the 70s and 80s.’

Likewise, his style and subject matter evolves; he describes his output during the 1970s as ‘more fantasy – surrealistic with a bit of a pop influence, and primitive influences… a bit more whimsical,’ (amongst other things, it was at this time when Norman Catherine collaborated with Walter Battiss on the escapist Fook Island). This shaded to a ‘slightly darker surrealism in the late 70s. In the 80s, it was much more political, much more aggressive at what was going on here, but with a kind of cartoonish element… a little more exaggerated and animated than the 70s airbrush work.’

During the 1980s, Catherine arguably produced some of his most viciously satirical works. Intensive Care, for example, depicts a man bound to a bed with barbed wire, facing down a rattrap poised to spring at his throat, and a circular saw making its way up the bed – a nightmare out of James Bond. The patient’s chart marks an unremitting downward plunge. Even the artist’s mark-making becomes more vicious, dark slashes animating a chaotic, sharp-edged world, and his usually saturated colours leech out to leave a dark, grim scene. The work looks angry, but Catherine recalls, ‘a sense of paranoia, rather than direct anger… I think I sensed the fear in South Africa more than being directly affected myself. Obviously it was frustrating, it was like a sick comedy, as far as I was concerned.’ His imagery is not, it seems, a considered response to situations and events, but appears to flow from within: ‘I think it’s the subconscious, the collective unconscious that I express,’ he says.

In the 1990s, Norman Catherine describes his work as ‘a bit more symbolic but still political… but I started going back to using a lot more found objects…. I think my ideas were more concerned with things internationally.’ Throughout, his work maintains a distinctive character, despite the vast range in media embraced by the artist – Hazel Friedman describes him as ‘simultaneously Velcro and Teflon. Influences attach themselves to his work like dust particles.’ Here there is a hint of cubism, there a nod to Magritte, Francis Bacon, pop culture, comics, graphic novels, you name it. His work is far from static – Ashraf Jamal describes his experimentation as ‘relentless’. And yet it retains some particular quality unique to Catherine, be it the use of intense colours, the wild patterns, the hunched gorilla-shoulders of his bruisers, the menacing men with teeth. His subject matter is almost always absurd, with a frequent undertone of violence in the abundance of curling snakes and sharp points – knives, teeth, barbed wire and cacti. It offers a darker version of Alice’s Wonderland, in which the people themselves grow necks like flamingos, all the better to contemplate their navels, neatly hidden beneath a suit and tie.

At one point he describes his work as ‘a kind of mixture of early African art mixed with more contemporary themes,’ influenced by masks and fetishes, the ritualistic. ‘I also enjoy Mexican folk art, especially the Day of the Dead, which I saw a lot of in the States,’ (Catherine spent some time living in Los Angeles during the mid-1980s). ‘That links with the darker, black humour in my work. Even some of the curios that I see, I enjoy, just for the fun element to them.’

His interest in the Day of the Dead points to a recurring tongue-in-cheek reference to the occult, evidenced by works with titles such as Muti Man (1995), Ju Ju Bazaar (1996), and Abracadra (2004). In Sue Williams’ Resistance Art of South Africa, Catherine describes The Last Remains of Another Man (1988), a mixed media sculpture depicting two policemen guarding an open coffin, as ‘an entrance to hell, white man’s witchcraft.’

The weird and the wonderful forms a concrete part of Norman Catherine’s everyday, as human figures mutate into dogs, snakes, crocodiles; divided selves with hands, or heads apparently possessed by bestial influences. Catherine’s world is chaotic and fascinating, never dull and rarely serene.

Today, his work is less political, ‘it’s more social commentary on all kinds of levels – from the corporate world to the mafia world,’ he says. ‘I like poking fun at things… it is more humorous than it was in the 80s. It’s… more introspective, poking fun at myself, looking at oneself. I think now the work is now a bit more reflective, and less exaggerated than it was.’ Personal Trainer (2005), for example, depicts a man facing off with dog over a cupcake, but in typical Catherine style, the man’s own body has turned against him – one hand has mutated into a smaller dog. The subject matter has grown lighter, but violence still erupts – Fast Food (2005) has a man with the head of a shark biting off his own fingertips.

Norman Catherine’s dark humour and prodigious output has earned him one of the foremost places on the local art scene and abroad, where his work has been exhibited extensively, both in group and solo exhibitions. His work is owned by every self-respecting collection of contemporary South African art, a host of corporates, and numerous international collections.

Next year will bring an opportunity for locals the chance to catch a retrospective of his work; otherwise, Catherine notes that, ‘My limit for having exhibitions is about every three to four years… and sometimes even longer, and usually they’re quite big shows.’

In Catherine’s view, the South African art scene has blossomed over the last few decades. ‘I think in the 70s there were a handful of artists that were getting known, getting recognised; whereas now there are so many people, and so many opportunities… We were isolated here until the 90s, really. Now it’s completely different – the exposure, I suppose, with the Internet and everything, works being seen and exhibited all over the world. The number of collectors has grown. Art is seen as a form of investment… I think in the past people thought that art was of little importance, but now that’s [changed]… There’s just so much more work than before going on here. There’s a lot of good talent out there.’

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