The eyes of the deceased icons in Conrad Botes's paintings bring them back to life.
Declaration of interest: I own two works by Conrad Botes. I am not averse to his prices going up in case I need to sell them. I would really rather not, though, because I like them a lot. I also like the work in his new show, Zombie Babylon, although it is a long way from the first work of his I saw in the “alternative” (mostly) Afrikaans comic book Bitterkomix in 1992. It is also unlike the assemblage of his that hangs on my wall, encrusted as it is with staples and put together from wood, paper, glass and metal.
But Botes has always been both diverse and consistent in his work. He has worked in all the media, from comics to sculpture, silk-screening to painting directly on to the wall itself. Some of the time, he is like Keith Haring, who could apply his trademark imagery to any surface (from the walls of a cruising toilet to Grace Jones’s body). Sometimes, Botes seems more Matisselike, constantly seeking a way to put another new twist on beloved forms of representation.
Zombie Babylon, Botes’s new show at the Stevenson in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, has three elements — “three disciplines”, he says — as befits someone whose regular job is teaching art. The show comprises about 20 large paintings, two sculptures and a long sequence of smaller works on glass.
The two sculptures in painted wood gaze at each other enigmatically across one gallery; one is calmly collecting his or her entrails in a kidney-shaped dish. In the same space, running around the walls, is a series of glass panels that sequentially form a new kind of comic book. This series takes the Bible story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and, frame by frame, moves it in an entirely new direction.
The Jacob story echoes previous works of Botes, such as the titular trio of his Cain and Abel exhibition (2009), one each in glass, lithographed and in pencil, ink and paint on paper. The glass Cain Slays Abel, in turn, formally reproduces the surreal 58-pane drama of The Passion of the White Rat from his 2007 show, Satan’s Choir at the Gates of Heaven. (You have to love Botes for his titles alone.)
Latticework of vibrant hues
The third “discipline” of Zombie Babylon is painting. These acrylics on canvas are, in a way, very “pure” paintings. They investigate visual aesthetics with no more than paint — although paint of course produces lines, colours and shapes and those ultimately produce meaning. You cannot really get away from that unless you go abstract. Botes, I suspect, is too interested in how images can play with meaning to go fully abstract, but he clearly likes to set himself a bit of a pure-painting challenge too.
The backgrounds of these new paintings look like something by a Bridget Riley on mildly psychedelic drugs, optical art losing its foothold in the sternly rectangular. In lined, slightly off-kilter spaces, colours accumulate, going one way and then the other to create a latticework of vibrant hues that confuse and delight the eye.
“Complimentary colours,” says Botes. He is giving me a walk-through. “Complimentary colours and playing with light-dark.”
Placed alongside each other, complimentary colours jar the eye, making these stripes and rhomboids (because that is what you end up with) seem to quiver uncertainly as one looks at them. They also make one smile, because the colours are something like the candy tones of the advertising of the late 1950s and early 1960s, or those that still pop up in sweet shops and at Foschini when it is having a summery bubblegum moment, but muted.
“You must have used a lot of masking tape,” I say to Botes, because to get a straight line he would have had to stick strips of tape across the canvas and paint each layer of a different colour that way. Yes, he says, he did — and a lot of paint.
It must have been a relief to get to the point where he could put the foreground (if that is the right word) on the paintings. These are graphic book and comic book-style images of Jesus, Diana Spencer, Michael Jackson ... and two renditions of some porn he got off the internet.
He says he cannot really see a private collector wanting a set of four Jesuses, gorgeous though they are, to hang on the wall of their home, and not just because it would be impossible to match them to the décor. They also maintain the satirical edge of Botes’s work. (Strangely, the sculptures feel the least satirical of this group of pieces; they are “serious”, even tragic.)
“Originally, the idea with the portraits was to do four of each,” he says, but that felt like it might be too much. Perhaps, I suggest, a psychedelic charismatic church could buy the Jesus quartet? Except that in Botes’s rendition, the saviour, gazing to heaven as the crown of thorns pierces his brow, has red and yellow zombie eyes.
Of course, Saint Diana and Saint Michael (both dead or, like Jesus, dead but alive; undead) have zombie eyes too, never mind the porno people. “When I was painting them,” says Botes, “as soon as I put in the zombie eyes they came to life.”
Zombies are not new to popular culture, but nowadays they are slippery signs. On the one hand, they are a metaphor for contemporary consumer culture and its dead-eyed guzzling of product after product, tangible or virtual. On the other, they are celebrated by ordinary people who want to perform their alienation in some way, launching great communal “zombie walks” across the capitals of the West.
We gaze contemplatively at one of Botes’s porno paintings. I like those the most, I say. Thinking of his wanting to line his paintings up in sets, I propose they be placed either side of the one of policemen tussling with a protester to make a triptych.
“That,” he says, “would probably eventually sell to a museum.”
Zombie Babylon is on at the Stevenson, 62 Juta Street, Braamfontein, until December 15