First published in Business Day
Alexia Vogel’s art is pretty. It isn’t only the pinky toned palette that lends her painting this quality but her style and subject-matter. Mountains, valleys, rivers, bucolic settings are her focus, which she renders in a soft, misty, floaty manner. Since conceptualism fell out of favour, or receded, painting has been enjoying a revival and the craft of art has become important again. Art has increasingly become ‘prettier’. Aesthetics matter now. Not surprisingly this has led to a trend in contemporary SA art that you could call Romanticism.
It is a fitting label given artists like Vogel and her contemporaries such as Sarah Biggs, Zarah Cassim, Ruby Swinney and Heidi Fourie are particularly interested in depicting natural features. They are not faithful to nature. As with Vogel, Biggs evokes nature through a colour palette and brushstrokes suggesting organic matter rather than pinning down the features of a rural landscape or vegetation. In the past she planted small figures in her compositions to indicate the grand scale of the mountains, rivers, as per the Romantic painters of the 1800s. More recently she presents portraits of people embedded, immersed in nature, clearly swayed by its psychic impact. Fourie’s distinctive style of painting is perhaps less airy-fairy; her painterly gestures are solid and bold. Yet in her rendering of water, rocks and other natural phenomenon she imbues a sense of grandeur. This is romanticism at work.
For the first time in South Africa, an exhibition dedicated to this apparent revival or contemporary twist on it in art will be staged at the Barnard Gallery, Newlands, Cape Town on January 30. Titled New Romantics it wryly refers not only to a moment in the ‘80s featuring gender-bendering pop stars in frilly shirts but a painterly (and literary) movement in the late 1800s. It is the latter that has more relevance to this group of young, and mostly female artists (Marcus Neustter is the only male artist participating) who are concerned with rendering nature in a ‘romantic’ way.
What exactly does this ‘romantic’ term denote with regards to contemporary art? The artists participating in the group exhibition, which include Vogel, Fourie, Biggs, Robyn Penn, Katherine Spindler, Rose Mudge and Ronel de Jager, do not identify themselves as ‘new romantic’ painters. However, applying this outdated term to their art might be useful in beginning to understand why a generation of female painters are interested in depicting nature in all its grandness, digging into the way it enables a transcendental experience.
Perhaps it frees them up from ‘women’s art’ – that is art concerned with the female body. Aside from Biggs, none of the artists in this exhibition depict a female subject or any subjects in their art. Instead they exist (in their practice, art) as powerful omnipotent presence, penetrating beyond the surface of the natural world, teasing out its invisible qualities.
In her Virus (2017) series De Jager presents circular abstract works; the inside of an organism under the microscope, evoking the textures of organic material beyond sight. The soft, hazy film through which we view the lone sheep depicted in Spindler’s paintings alerts us to her subjective position, a world refracted through her internal, emotional lens. Penn’s ink painting of a cloud in which she attempts to deconstruct its structure is juxtaposed with her uber traditional oil painting of one, demonstrating the artist’s ability to delve beyond appearances but to also create a luminous and desirable façade. This is an unconditional empowered position, in which as they recreate the natural world they can also allow themselves to enact a feminine aesthetic that is wispy, delicate and pinky toned.
Mudge’s glitter painting, The Vision (2017) which glistens and glows with ‘feminine shades’ is inspired by an ‘80s aesthetic which (has and continues to) define toys and accessories for young girls. Instead of directly reproducing imagery evoking over-determined ideas about femininity, she segues the aesthetic into an ambiguous abstract space. Her pure colour paintings open a threshold into a world beyond recognition of pure transcendence. It could be a non-gendered space, an apolitical space. Maybe, even a happy place – a space artists have traditionally recoiled from. Serious art isn’t supposed to be happy or pretty, yet to be subversive as an artist now could mean making work that satisfies both ends.
Certainly, this romantic aesthetic, subject-matter, delivers on so many other interesting social or political objectives too. Within an art language, it presents the ideal space beyond logic, reason that conceptualism, identity-driven politically motivated art of the 90s or noughties.
Their art is post-geographical; these natural places do no exist in reality or refer to specific places. Neustetter’s quirky works, where he attempts to map the spaces between stars on reclaimed 1950s celestial charts, presents this compulsion to pinpoint places beyond the naked eye. He authentically engages in this act, while also exposing the limits and futility of coming to grips with the natural world. The result are maps full of colourful strands or squiggles that undercut scientific (and once colonial) efforts to name, claim and control nature.
Efforts to dominate and exploit nature have damaged the world and now pose a threat to human existence. This awareness lends further gravitas to this romantic turn in painting, which redirects our attention to our reliance on the natural world not only for our physical survival but our mental well-being. The form of contemplation and perhaps connectedness that the figure in Biggs’s Eventide (2017) enjoys is clearly facilitated by the natural environment. This natural world rendered through the romantic aesthetic, lens or position, opens up another space the romantics of yesteryear called the sublime. All sorts of things, which cannot be explained or depicted visually, can be found here. In leading us into this uncertain place, this generation of artists live up to their Romantic label.