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Transcending the Art Game; can it be done?

Barend de Wet doesn't want to be known as the artist who makes work with neon colours. Hence his new show is monochromatic.

Barend de Wet has made for good stories, conforming to the quirky artist character with his self-confessed love of yo-yoing and his wild party antics - such as whipping out his penis at dinner parties (this is how one writer introduces him). He has also done all manner of unconventional things even by art standards.

Top of this list would be allowing any artist to make art in his name. In this way he permits artists to create a work and attribute it to De Wet. Why would an artist do this, toil away on an artwork only to allow De Wet to get all the glory? Well, possibly because they are as anti-art rules as De Wet.

His litany of tongue-in-cheek word-play performance art compels stories or at least doesn’t even require a writer with any imaginative, or narrative ability. He has set up a free tattoo parlour and his ‘art disguised as pasta’ performance in 1996 saw De Wet make fresh pasta for an audience which was later consumed for dinner. The common thread, of course, relates to the title of the exhibition, everything is art (all lower case, of course) at the Joao Ferreira Gallery where in 1998 De Wet and Peet Pienaar performed “dyslexics of the world untie.” Most artists have attempted to identify what art is, De Wet’s skill seems to have been doing it in an entertaining manner.

His most thorough and committed exploration has to have been the establishment of the Museum of the Temporary Art, an establishment he opened in Observatory in the late nineties that was used as a hotel and an art space.

“I couldn’t decide which was which,” he explains when I meet him at the Smac gallery, where he will stage his new solo, Black and White and Everything In-Between. As the title infers all the work will be monochromatic.

“Everyone thinks I do bright neon coloured work I wanted to pull back from that.”

This more sombre palette might be indicative of a shift in his career that has been developing for some time. You can still rely on him for a good art gag – like the DIY sculptures he sold at Smac Gallery’s stand at the Joburg Art Fair in 2015 and his Projected Identities series, which saw the artist invite a host of people to dress him up in any which outfit they fancied, resulting in a photographs of De Wet as a wrestler, a medieval knight. Yet, his work has become less focused on pushing external boundaries - is less attention grabbing and less performance orientated. It may even be less humorous. Art isn’t funny anymore. It is a business and has become about sales, not presenting probing questions.

In recalling his studies at Michaelis, UCT’s school of Fine Arts, in the 80s he was most turned on by notions of an interdisciplinary practice that lecturer Kevin Atkinson encouraged. He has carved out this kind of practice, by generating sculptures – metal or cast bronze, performance pieces and his neon pink abstract knitted works. It is hard to believe that a single artist has produced such a diversity of work. An abstract language might be one commonality - evidenced in the metal sculptures and his knitted ‘canvases’.

“Good art is a combination of everything you see. You have to forget about it and then let it come through your unconscious,” he says.

Like all the writers before me, I’m keen to meet the man described as “the roustabout Bukowski-from Boksburg”. I want that quirky De Wet story. Editors and readers love nothing more than following the crazy antics of OTT artists, living out the creative lifestyle, even if it is mere myth.

The De Wet I meet is subdued and detached. Perhaps because his practice is less performance driven or reliant on it he doesn’t have to perform for writers, audiences any more. He delivers something more interesting; the banal truth or truths about art making. His honesty is disarming.

He confesses he is fedup with making art himself, in particular labour-intensive metal sculptures that first put in on the art map in the 90s when he was recognised by the Volkas Atelier Awards.

“I don’t feel like welding anymore. I feel like knitting instead.”

It is the soundbite I had hoped for, but his delivery is so dry he makes it sound like an everyday remark. As with the so-called spinsters of yesteryear his interest in knitting may have signaled a retirement from society – in this context daring public performances in real life and in art contexts. He confirms his wilder days are behind him now, since he married a costume designer. Could be his age too; he is now on the dark side of fifty.

In the mid-90s he famously announced his premature retirement from the art world via a postcard art-work. Someone very foolishly asked him why he was still making art years later.

“The whole point is that you can’t resign.”

His obsession with knitting might be part of his persistent desire to usurp expectations around gender and art but it also had to do with a curious ambition.

“I saw a knitted dress with cables and I was fascinated. I wanted to be able to make those cables. It was a challenge. If all those people can do it, like my mother and grandmother why can’t I?”

This led to an ongoing series of knitted abstract works, but these will not appear on Black and White and Everything In-Between.

“I don’t want to be known as the artist who knits.”

His desire to confound expectations could be linked to his performance art streak. Is he a repressed performance artist without a stage, in an art world where objects are prized over everything? He cynically refers to art-making as a game and implies that his practice is diverse so that he sort of has every corner of art mode covered; the knitted ‘canvases’ function as the textile/gender/bender art works, the abstract sculptures tick the sculpture and abstract boxes, the African quasi fetish sculptures (“I’m an African too”) exude the cynical yet political connection to the continent and the performative photographic works such as the Projected Identities tie up with the identity-driven theme that has defined much contemporary practice.

“I want to make money from the art game. This is a game about money and things,” he says dryly.

Beating the game, according to De Wet involves making unique objects that are familiar at the same time. Unfortunately, even if an artist recognises this he or she can’t do this in a totally calculated way – uniqueness can’t be manufactured and authenticity is a quality tied to this. This is what makes the art game so peculiarly cruel.

After pushing the envelope between art and life, perhaps De Wet has finally understood where life and art overlap – in the realm of commerce.

Art is driven by different logics and De Wet suggests that he could just as easily adopt another to explain what he does. Everything appears interchangeable except for this pesky art game, which De Wet seems locked into playing. At times I sense he has been defeated by it and at others it appears as if he has transcended it bypassed it through his nonchalance. The quirky artist story does not serve him or maybe us. - this article was first published in The Weekend Argus, June 5, 2016.

Black, White and Everything In-Between shows at Smac Gallery from June 4 to July 23


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