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Kevin Atkinson: Mapping Plato’s Cave at SMAC Gallery

Re-opening Plato’s Cave: The legacy of Kevin Atkinson.

More often than not, one finds that history most clearly remembers those who leave the most formulaic impression. Nothing could be further from the legacy left by one of South Africa’s most innovative and influential artists, Kevin Atkinson. He was best described as ‘ahead of his time’ and therefore, often considered ‘enigmatic’ by history. Atkinson was, however, renowned as not only an artist, but also an inspiring educator.

Atkinson is remembered with adoration and reverence by his former students. Most notably Marlene Dumas, who, upon Atkinson’s sudden passing in 2007, wrote a sincere dedication to him, where she described him as ‘postmodern before modern became post’.

Kevin Atkinson exhibited widely in his lifetime, both international and regularly at home, in South Africa. His embrace of science and technology also made him the ideal recipient of a number of public commissions for mural and lighting installations in the 1960s and 70s. A large part of this icon of free-thought’s legacy is the plethora of artworks left behind. All of which are stored in his phenomenal underground vault underneath the old Price’s Candle Factory, in Cape Town’s southern suburb of Observatory.

Kevin Atkinson is Mapping Plato's Cave at SMAC Gallery
Towards the paler Shades of Grey, Kevin Atkinson, 1970. Oil paint on canvas. 1675 x 244cm.

In perfect symmetry with Atkinson’s reputation for open minded, alternative reasoning, he selected this very large subterranean space as his studio. The cavern is strangely opposite to what many artists would seek out in a studio space, such as an abundance of natural light and therefore warmth, the vault has neither of these qualities.

During his previous 30-year teaching career at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, Atkinson kept an upper floor studio, boasting three walls of multiple windows emitting almost all-day sunshine. Atkinson explained this turn in his preference for studio requirements by succinctly stating that the space had a ‘rightness’ about it. This perhaps precisely describes the artist’s idiosyncratic attitude to his practice; he was almost completely consistent in his unpredictability.

Kevin Atkinson is Mapping Plato's Cave at SMAC Gallery
Kevin Atkinson and Walter Battiss, 1970. Black & white photograph, Cape Town.

Practicing full-time in the basement studio, after taking early retirement from teaching in 1999, Atkinson fittingly dubbed his new studio, ‘Plato’s Cave’ after the allegorical cave discussed by Plato in his renowned text, The Republic. It is no coincidence that Atkinson found affinity with this giant of philosophy, and his seminal work which is, most briefly, about ‘the effect of education and the lack of it in our nature’.

Among the extensive collection of artworks that find refuge in The Cave, are paintings spanning from his early art-making career in 1960s, right up to his last artworks made before his death in the late 2000s. Also preserved in this voluminous collection are records of Kevin Atkinson’s correspondence with luminaries of conceptual art, such as Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp and Jack Burnham, among others.

In addition, Atkinson’s engagement in 1965 with the famous Surrealist printmaker, Stanley William Hayter at the Atelier 17 studio in Paris is also unearthed, showing how the latter’s notion of ‘psychic automatism’ became a persistent principle underlying much of Atkinson’s drawing, printmaking and painting.

His perseverance for exploring unconventional thinking and methodology is an innate trait that can be glimpsed in this most curious anthology of Atkinson’s vocation. On perusal of the quantum of Plato’s Cave, not only does one come across unexpected moments of enchantment, thrill, intensity and solace, but also laid bare are the foundations of many a more familiar artists’ practice.

The roots and influences of so many of South Africa’s artists find their origins here in this underground treasure house. In a career spanning over 40 years, his approaches ranged from the ‘purely retinal’ concerns of hard-edge abstraction, to what Duchamp referred to as the ‘non-retinal’.

Mapping Plato's Cave at SMAC Gallery
Ritual Arena no.1, Kevin Atkinson, 1977. 157 x 157cm.

In 1978, Kevin Atkinson had one of his many solo exhibitions, however this was his first in Stellenbosch, thereafter his work formed part of many group shows in the town until 1987. SMAC Gallery has brought back the work of this dynamic and lauded painter to the Boland in a solo presentation, the likes of which has not been seen in the region for more than three decades.

Re-opening Plato’s Cave: The legacy of Kevin Atkinson at SMAC Gallery in Stellenbosch follows on from the acclaimed 2013 retrospective, titled Opening Plato’s Cave: The Legacy of Kevin Atkinson, at the Iziko South African National Gallery.

The exhibition at SMAC has been curated by Marilyn Martin and Jo-Anne Duggan, both members of the Kevin and Patricia Atkinson Trust, and includes paintings, prints and drawings all selected from Plato’s Cave. The exhibition took place from 15 October to 19 November 2016.

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