Polly Street days again

It is uncommon in this time, in Johannesburg, to see artists simply making pictures and working with issues to do with their medium. The exhibition by artists from The Artists’ Proof Studio is unusual, too, in the recent history of the Market’s Rembrandt van Rijn Gallery — it is neither conceptual nor “theoretical”; it’s not an installation but a collection of (mainly) printed images, both abstract and figurative, hung in straight rows on the gallery walls.

Many are brightly coloured and boldly gestural; others are quieter, more monochromatic works; some display an obvious facility, both with drawing and a variety of approaches to printmaking; others reveal artists struggling with media and technique. On one level, it’s as though the stopped clocks have been rewound and the old familiar Polly Street subjects updated once again. On another level, it’s refreshing to see the familiar struggles of men and women learning and practising a craft.

A sense of naivety hangs over the exhibition — but not the kind one mistakes for innocence or backwardness. It’s more a historical naivety, in the sense of a peculiar and occluded view of the past. Walter Benjamin describes history as an angel blown backwards into the future. This is the sense one has — of these works representing the concerns of past eras transported forwards into the present and the future, but always with their eyes on some idealised vision of the past.

There is a point around which the works pivot, a point between technique and subject. Few of the images on show here manage to balance these two aspects: some are technical in the sense of being too closely concerned with the specific requirements of their forms; others spring to the opposite extreme and treat their medium as a transparent vehicle for their subject matter.

There are two works in particular which stand out for having balanced both sets of requirements. One is an abstract portrait by Samson Mnisi, in which the contours of a face are marked with a very free and energetic line over blocks of colour.

The other is a figure composition by Ezekiel Budeli, which seems to turn in precise balance on the point between the two impulses. The figures, though carefully observed, are quickly and even schematically drawn; but there is a second level of meaning and technique, in which the artist has returned to embellish his figures’ dress with flat hatched and linear patterns.

This print tells a great deal of the process behind its making, both by revealing distinct layers of drawing, and by scratches and irregularities on the printer’s plate which are recorded as rough and random marks on the final printed image.

A work which embodies the unusual relation to history is a woodblock print of an enormous mama, her back turned, who sways heavily into the picture-plane. Figures with their backs turned often feel like they’re moving towards the past or future — this woman, her body marked in black ink, moves slowly towards her future by way of her past, the past of the medium in which she is rendered, and the past of black art in South Africa.

Artists from the Artists’ Proof Studio exhibit at the Rembrandt van Rijn Gallery in Newtown until October 19

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