Thing of beauty: The Be Careful pop-up book

The exhibition is a project of the David Krut Print Workshop that began last year.

The exhibition is a project of the David Krut Print Workshop that began last year.

In case you don’t know who Mondrian was, he was a Dutch artist and an important contributor to the De Stijl art movement who died in 1944, and who painted squares in the colours of children’s toy Lego sets.

In his old age Mondrian was obsessed with the city and apparently hated the colour green because of its association with nature. He once said that the world could best be understood while gazing out of an aeroplane.

Some have suggested that, for inspiration, Mondrian may have sat atop New York’s skyscrapers, looking down at the traffic below. His paintings could be interpreted as a bird’s-eye view of a city grid.
Bold, dotted yellow stripes make one think of New York cabs and flashing neon lights.

Mondrian is also responsible for one of history’s greatest ramblings about modern art: “I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.”

The art of Hobbs — an artist obsessed with African urban landscapes — also presents us with an intuitive look at city grids, but his constructions are not so much about the people in them as about the space they consume.

Hobbs’s handmade art about buildings explores the role people played in the city’s development and seems to revel in the various stages of urban growth and decay.

As an artist obviously committed to the city of Johannesburg, it’s probably a convenient survival tactic — to create an art that looks at the shape of the city instead of wallowing in the misery that expansion can bring.

Hobbs’s current exhibition is titled Be Careful in the Working Radius and it references a cautionary instruction found at building sites in China. Yet strangely, Hobbs found these words, as well as a translation of them into Mandarin, at a Chinese building site in Maputo.

In addition to woodblock and linocuts, Hobbs has created miniature cityscapes and sculptures of tiny construction sites. But the exhibition has one standout element, a pop-up book that combines a children’s fantasy of the scary grey city with a town planner’s obsession with vast sculptural shapes and Mondrian-like grids.

In her catalogue essay about the show, Jacqueline Nurse calls the book “paper architecture.”

According to her description, the book includes “handwritten mind-maps, stylised networks and city grids, scaffolding and empty billboard structures, blocked patterns and optical illusions, which team up with the wonderment of the paper engineering techniques to demand an absorptive process of looking”.

In his essay, Hobbs compares the semi-fictional city to an artist’s workshop. Like a workshop, he writes, “since the early Nineties [Johannesburg] has felt like a construction site, a work in progress”.

The exhibition is a project of the David Krut Print Workshop that began last year.

Stephen Hobbs’s exhibition Be Careful of the Working Radius runs at David Krut Projects, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, until July 13. The Be Careful pop-up book sells for R12 000


Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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