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Anton Kannemeyer: Subdued satire is the new shocking

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane reflects on Kannemeyer's new show, which offers gentle, contemplative work, rather than the artist's usual satirical attacks.

Mpho Moshe Matheolane.

I walked into Anton Kannemeyer’s latest solo exhibition, Paintings and prints for doctors and dentists, half expecting to be slapped in the face by the forcefully satirical work that Kannemeyer has become known for.

It did not happen. 

Instead, I was greeted by a rather small and somewhat contemplative series of landscape sketches of the Karoo’s Swartbergpas, which quietly occupied the opening space of the Stevenson Gallery. 

See a slideshow of images from the exhibition here.

Along with these works were others that seemed to suggest Kannemeyer may be taking a different direction with his work, but also hinted at some of his familiar motifs.

I walked around, no wine in hand, wondering to myself: “Where are the works that make one uncomfortable, laugh hesitantly and politely feign approval when looking at them?” I did not see them.

I remarked to a fellow visitor that Kannemeyer’s work seemed rather subdued, as if presented by an artist who did not wish to do any tackling of politics, race and sex this time around. We laughed at the possibility that our shared (and unmet) expectations were perhaps the result of having been exposed to The Spear and all its drama for far too long, that during this exposure our sensitivities had been peaked, and that the anticipation of the next controversy had become a distraction. 

Recalling the infamous oddity of an art critic, Georges Batalie who wrote that “shocks in art are just shocks; you see them all the time, so much so that by now not being shocking is more shocking,” it occurred to me that that it was this expectation and anticipation that had resulted in my slight disillusionment in the beginning of the exhibition.

But Kannemeyer is anything but one dimensional where his art is concerned.

I expected to see more representations of black dicks, Tintins and scared white people but I suppose, I should have known better. The title of the exhibition is, after all, Paintings and prints for doctors and dentists, and therein lies the explanation for the subdued air of this exhibition. According to the gallery, the artist came up with the idea of making work that would be acceptable to “doctors and dentists” after his attempts to barter his works for their services proved to be futile. The satirical artworks, as it turned out, did not suit their tastes.

But next to the very appeasing images of landscapes with their absorbing sense of solitude is a more familiar sight for those who know Kannemeyer - the series of three works titled Splendid Dwelling. In these images there is the consistent presence of the black subject, but these are markedly different from the “koons” that occupy his earlier works, which, surprisingly, never quite received the same attention as The Spear. That may be due to the fact that Kannemeyer does not rely on political iconography or personalities to get his message across, and therefore passes silently under the Jackson Mthembu radar of what is and what is not “acceptable art” – politically speaking, that is.

I should mention that the Splendid Dwelling pieces are striking in how very representative they are of what one could find in any middle to upper class household, white or black, in contemporary South Africa. They offer specific social observation and comment, rather than subvert an assumed socio-economic comfort. Then again, that may be the very thing that makes them so potent – when economic comfort is (or seems to be) attained, does one stop paying attention to anything else? Or, as it is stated in the piece,“How can anyone be unhappy who lives in such a splendid dwelling?”

His portraits are another compelling aspect of the exhibition, marked by an element of being personal and nostalgic. They bring to the artist’s extensive oeuvre to the fore. His subjects include his partner, the artist Claudette Schreuders, Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-landi Vi$$er, as well as Antjie Krog and others who maybe reflect and have inflected his own thoughts and memories.

We have, in his work, the artist presenting us with, not only a portrayal of his eclectic take on the world, but, more importantly, an insight into his own world.

Paintings and prints for doctors and dentists will run until June 29 at the Stevenson gallery in Johannesburg.


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