Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bronwen Findlay

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I would like to focus on each of the 3000hours artists separately so today I will be exploring some of the works of Bronwen Findlay.
Bronwen Findlay lives in Johannesburg where she teaches and paints. She acknowledges the inspiration of cloth and textiles in her work which we can see in the image below, a luxurious burst of orange and gold and reminds me of Indian sari fabric. She has achieved a sequin-like effect by piping gold paint in dots to form the pattern of a flower. In her artists statement she asserts that the manipulation of paint, pattern and colour are her chief concerns in this particular exhibition, as are also long running themes in her work.

The tantalizing quality of this little painting, just under the size of an A4 page, seems to be fully realized in the work below, which is my favourite painting in this exhibition.

Painted and piped in subtle but dazzlingly reflective shades of gold and silver, it has all the luxury of yards of billowing silk fabric. There is a quality in it over-all-surface-ness (if you’ll excuse me coining a word) that I can only recall seeing in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, in which strings of paint were layered over the surface of the canvas until a static-like web was formed.
One gets the distinct feeling when looking at this work that the canvas is merely a window onto an energy field – comprised of the shifting gold and silver – that is not brought to an end by the paintings dimensions, but continues to exist beyond these borders.
There is however a hint of the flower motif that runs through this body of work; large blooms and leaves are every so subtly piped onto the shining surface, but they do not sit above the surface or exist as a foreground to its background. Instead there is a unification of these two fields that is responsible for the work’s impressive unity. There is also a small square of subtle print fabric worked into the layers of paint, which just floats through, creating another mesmerizing dimension to this beautiful piece.
The last image I will be discussing today is one I find delightfully creepy. The reason for this is that, embedded into the paint is a wrinkled and characteristically textured snake skin. In a previous blog we looked at a similar small work in which, preserved in the paint, lay a half-decomposed flower and this piece is similarly eerie. The strange luxury of this discarded skin, a beautiful natural textile in its own right, is enhanced, once again, by Findlay’s use of gold, piped as in the other works into shimmering sequins of paint. The sequin effect echoes the pattern on the snakeskin and enhances its quality of abandoned finery.

Luxury, finery, natural abundance – these are all qualities I associate with this body of work. There is also the faintest hint of over-abundance, decomposition and decay which is the flipside of these earthly excesses. In Findlay’s work there is often a touch of the shadowy, a feeling of unease amongst wealth and surplus which brings a depth, an enigmatic quality, to her beautiful work.
To visit Bronwen Findlay’s webpage click on the link below.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Merle Payne - Use of Irony

The next two blogs I will devote to each artist individually. While the works of Merle Payne and Bronwen Findlay have many very complementary aspects they also deserve to be investigated separately.
Today I will be looking at Merle Payne’s work and the principles behind Barok’s designs, in particular the use of irony and (sometimes dark) humour.
The image below is of a Barok cushion cover and is a particularly good example of Merle Payne’s use of irony – indeed it is a slightly disturbing piece of work.

The crowned griffin grasping a large gun, with the slogan ‘Republic of Banana’ makes for a rather sharp statement on the state of many African countries. The fact that it appears unusually on a cushion cover somehow makes the statement all the more ironic. It seem to be implied that tolerating corruption in government has become commonplace, something that we live side by side with and are de-sensitized into taking very little notice of.
The image has been repeated in the work XXX Extra Strong.

The lion is a frequently used symbol for Africa and particular the strength of Africa and its leaders. As a very recognizably African symbol it is often utilized in Barok’s proudly South African work, although the archetypal lion takes on various guises, some more threatening than others. In this piece he seems to be closely associated with violence.
The fact that Barok’s creative methods are located in the female domain seems to give the commentary a particularly cutting edge. The value of what is perceived of as ‘strength’, particularly with regards to archetypically male qualities, is severely criticized. The lion, being a predator, is an aptly chosen symbol for a system that relies on brutality and intimidation to rise to the top.
There is a strange contrast between what I can only vaguely define as the ‘innocence’ of the creative method (working with cloth, embroidery and embellishment) and the disturbing content of the work. It creates a sense of unease as well as humour in an art form that is not often noted for engendering such responses! The result is a tongue-in-cheek quirkiness that is hard to define.
It is also worth noting perhaps that these are striking and eye-catching images, very suited to bold flag-like work. In particular the image of a lion also has many more positive qualities such as bravery and great-heartedness. 
Despite the presence of the fearsome banana republic griffin in XXX Extra Strong, the image of a leaping lion is undeniably a heartening one, the sort of thing one can imagine inspiring patriotism in the hearts of those inclined to it. In fact many of these wall hangings are inspired by the Fante Asafo flags of Ghana which are loosely based on military flags. Asafo are local "companies" of men that serve several purposes, from celebrating festivals, inaugurating chiefs and defending their town or village. The flags tell stories about the areas where they are from.
It seems that the women of Barok are telling a rather serious story about the world around us in a format that is unusual and eye-catching.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bronwen Findlay and Merle Payne of Barok & Nic Bladen

The first of today’s images by Bronwen Findlay is a particularly beautiful painting.  

A patchwork arrangement of textiles forms an under layer, creating an interestingly pleated and rippled surface for the paint. The paint creates a glowing façade over the fabric, sometimes enhancing the patterns below, sometimes obliterating them completely. The colours are rich and glowing offset by a deep pastel background and her use of paint is luxurious and free, echoing the organic nature of the subject matter and setting it lose from the stiff representations of the fabric design.
In the little painting below we can see an interesting technique she has developed in which she actually encases plant matter in paint.  

The oil paint keeps out air and moisture thus preserving the form of the beautiful spray of twigs and leaves. There is something both marvelous and vaguely disturbing in this piece of life smothered in paint. The vivid but translucent yellow of this particular piece is an apt choice in that it allows the natural colour variations of the plant to shine through to some extent, adding an extra depth to the subtle variation of tones.
This almost heirloom-inspired preservation of natural matter reminds me of the work of sculptor and jeweler Nic Bladen whose work is also featured in the Kalk Bay Modern. Bladen casts the most delicate fynbos flowers, leaves and pods in silver, creating a perfect preservation of these forms. Not only does their value lie in their exquisite beauty but also in their historical, botanical and environmental significance as records.
To see his beautiful website click on the link below.

The Barok bag seen below is a cheerful little piece that contrasts tartan, camouflage print, bright frilly trim and two ribboned medals. It is a particularly good example of Merle Payne’s technique of combining unusual materials to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Although there are four women besides Merle who are employed at Barok, she is responsible for the design of each and every item.

Her maxim though is “Many hands make a lot of work” with the result that previously unemployed rural women can now become financially independent and empowered and though their workshop is still small they are expanding slowly.

Monday, December 14, 2009

FIndlay and Payne - light and texture

Today I’ll be looking at the use of texture and light reflection in Bronwen Findlay and Merle Payne’s work.
The detail below is the corner of the wall panel by Merle Payne and Barok discussed in the last blog. 

While previously I focused on the originality of the design, one cannot fully appreciate textiles until one can see them close up (and ultimately – be able to touch them.) Barok uses only the finest materials to make their beautiful works, 100% cotton, silk and wool. The combination of these fabrics creates incredibly rich surface, one that is just begging to be touched. In this way the embroidery and appliqué remind me of braille and reiterate the feeling that one of the wonderful things about art of the female domain is its lack of highbrow aloofness – to be unable to touch artwork is something I am always restraining myself against and I know this is the case for many! The welcoming quality, the inclusiveness, of art of this genre makes it far more valuable and meaningful than it is often given credit for in what remains a largely patriarchal system.
Embellishment is central to Payne’s creative process and in particular she likes to fuse the textiles of different cultures creating a beautiful and moving hybrid. Sometimes her influences will be mainly African, utilizing the traditional embellishments of Xhosa, Venda, Zulu, Ndebele and Shangaan textiles, but she also collects and uses vintage fabrics which include Japanese prints.
In this particular piece, the addition of shiny light reflecting buttons adds another point of interest to the whole. Each button is individual and contains a tiny picture – worlds within worlds!
The sumptuous image below is the work of Bronwen Findlay and combines the use of textiles and paint in a way that marries the two wonderfully.

The antique gold present in the classic textile design is carried through the rest of the canvas in organic loops and swirls that echo the floral design of the cloth. The design of the cloth enters the domain of the paint and the paint runs into the fabric creating unity and a sense of flow and movement across the surface. The background is silver and an interesting tension develops between the two materials as the light catches the canvas from different angles. The use of light-reflective materials (the gold and silver paint) creates a work that interacts with light and movement.

I am reminded of a story about Monet attempting to paint pheasants. He was incredibly frustrated by the fact that if he moved back and forth the iridescent plumage flashed red or green or a combination of both but was never static. For an artist bent on pinning down the qualities of light one can imagine how frustrating this must have been.
In the case of Findlay’s painting, the work has become the pheasant (so to speak!) – It is a 3-dimensional object that reacts to light. It does not exist only on a two dimensional level as the representation of something but exists as a thing in itself - an art object rather than a straight painting.
In this respect the link to the work of Merle Payne resurfaces once again in the existence of an art-piece that is an object of value, a physical, non-abstract creation whose significance lies, not in the conceptual, but in the actual.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bronwen Findlay and Merle Payne of Barok - 1

Today I will be looking at two of the images on display at the moment in the 3000hours exhibition and giving a little background on the respective artists Merle Payne and Bronwen Findlay.
Bronwen Findlay is a well known South African artist, a painter and printmaker. She has been exhibiting frequently since 1977 and has been involved in many community upliftment workshops and projects. Although she does not wish to be exclusively defined as a feminist or female artist, much of her work is concerned with ‘the female domain’ and she seeks to challenge its status on the hierarchy of fine art practice. However paint as paint, the manipulation and interaction with it as a physical substance, is far more important to her process.
In the detail featured below we can see the delight she takes is slathering on paint freely and freshly, allowing it to have its own existence on the canvas beyond the function of representation. Texture has an all-important function in her work, inspired as it often is, by textiles.

For more information on her work see her website at the link below.

Merle Payne has been involved in many creative ventures, helping to blur the line between art and craft. For 20 years she created ‘vintage’ costumes for her company Pearls – creations so expertly made one could not tell they weren’t antiques. After working for a brief period in set-design for movies, she opened up her business incredibly successful business, Barok. Barok consists of Payne and four women from the local community of Magoebaskloof, the farm where Payne grew up. They started out making skirts end have branched out to wall panels, bags and cushion covers. All of Payne’s works on display in 3000hours are Barok products.
Shown below is one of my favourite of her wall panels.

This wonderful piece shows her quirky sense of design and sense of irony. The images of a lion and two crocodiles, both typically South African tourist images, are combined amusingly with two strange horned, humanoid creatures, who are involved in what seems to be (due to the arrows) an extremely animated conversation or perhaps a dance. A white aeroplane flying across the sky and the jaunty ‘100% local’ slogan contribute to an amusing and offbeat take on made-for-tourist products.
For an extremely interesting article on Merle Payne and Barok, featured in Dossier Magazine, click on the link below.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

3000hours Opening

Yesterday evening was the opening of a sumptuous new exhibition at the Kalk Bay Modern. It featured the elaborately embroidered textiles of Merle Payne and the rich, colourful textile-inspired paintings of Bronwen Findlay.  Entitled 3000 hours, the name refers to the approximate number of hours it took to make the work on display, including the labour of the four women Merle Payne hires for her (very inspirational) company Barok.
The show really was a visual feast of textures, colours and juxtapositions. A feature shared by both artist’s work is an incredibly tempting tactile quality – at one point I really had to fight myself not to run my fingers over some glowingly vermillion, amazingly three-dimensional flowers on one of Bronwen Findlay’s paintings! In fact I must admit that when I happened to be fairly far from anyone else (a rather difficult feat for the gallery was very lively) I did ever so gently give one of them a stroke!
The juxtaposition of Payne and Findlay’s work is extremely successful and wonderfully suited, I think, to the environment of the Kalk Bay Modern, a gallery that is refreshingly devoid of any ‘white-cube’ tendencies. Both artists are inspired by traditionally female creative outlets – textiles, embellishment, and colour for beauty’s sake. The rich abundance of their work is off-set by the beautiful collection of art, craft, jewelry and pottery hosted by the gallery – they create a wonderfully authentic setting for art that is meant to be lived with and loved – not coldly observed and contemplated.
Merle Payne’s work is inspired by the rich culture of textiles in and around South Africa. The works on display in 3000 hours include her wonderfully successful Barok bags and wall hangings. Each work is painstakingly embroidered and embellished creating an extremely desirable one off piece that (in the case of the bags) is a wearable piece of art. She utilizes slogans that are often funny or ironic whilst retaining a sweetness that is charmingly innocent and zany. In particular I have my eye on a bag on which the appliquéd image of a slinky leopard sits below the words ‘The Lord is My Sheppard and I am His Leopard’. 

Also featured are the textiles of Yda Walt, Veldt, the Ekoka San community project (more about that soon), Sway, Fabric Nation, and the Keiskamma Art Project. The Kalk Bay Modern is a strong supporter of local crafters and upliftment programmes.
More about these exciting artists and works soon!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I have one last Peter Clarke image to share with you, a woodcut print entitled Iris (undated). This is a particularly interesting work to discuss because it is a piece that Clarke himself considers to be very technically sound. There is also a quaint story as to its origin, which seems to demonstrate the holistic nature of Clarke’s work process. He discussed this piece at the Kalk Bay Modern in an interview with the Art Times just before the opening of A Hot and Quiet Evening.

These are his words on the piece
“It’s one of my best prints; technically it is a very good print…. It happens when you use the right kind of materials, and in this case I got a nice piece of old wood – it was actually part of a bedstead which somebody had dumped and then I rescued these pieces of wood. I got this piece of wood [gesturing to the print] and cut into it; it was like slicing through butter. And when I printed it – everything fell into place. So that is one of my favourites.”
His obvious enjoyment in telling the story highlights how the creative processes of an artist like Peter Clarke are not limited to the moment of creation. The finding of treasure in what was rubbish to another, the ‘rescuing’ of the wood – all these elements were integral to the creation of this work and it can be seen in the finished product.
The delicacy of Iris is quite different to many of Clarke’s pieces. While the speedily-carved immediacy of many of his prints is a fundamental part of their charm, the intricacy of the hatching in Iris and its gracefully formed bloom shows that its production was a time consuming labour of love.
In the same interview Clarke speaks about how much of his work, both visual and literary, is concerned with space, moods and stillness. These qualities are deeply present in this beautiful image. It is imbued with wonderfully atmospheric quality, the fine cross-hatching creating a gauzy web of lights and darks. The addition of a smoky blue and a hint of palest green create the atmosphere of rain and the white flower shines out against the moody background with a freshness that you can almost smell.
I can certainly understand why it is one of Clarkes’s favourites as it is teeming with the joy of creation and is indeed both a technical and intuitive masterpiece.
(Here is a link to the video of Peter Clarke at the Kalk Bay Modern on the Art Times page)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Peter Clarke biography

As we have come to the end of A Hot and Quiet Evening I thought I would share with you a short biography of Peter Clarke’s remarkable life.
He was born in Simonstown, 1929, Cape Town. Much of his work is inspired by this beautiful coastal village where he lived until 1972, when he was forced to move to Ocean View under the Group Areas Act. He still lives there to this day and works from home.
He left high school in 1944 and was a dock worker until 1956 when, aged 27, a three month holiday to Teslaarsdal, a small farming village near Caledon in the South West Cape, began his artistic career.  Equipped with art materials he had brought along with him he explored a variety of themes that one can see developing in his work throughout his career. Apart from working on and off as an artist’s model during the next two years, he had now begun his full-time occupation as an artist.
He studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town in 1961, the Rijks Academic van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam, Holland in 1962 and 1963, and Atelier Nord (Graphic Art Workshop) in Oslo, Norway in 1978 and 1979. He has received six international as well as six national awards for his art and writing and had more than 70 solo exhibitions since 1957 in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Australia, USA, Norway, Israel, Austria & the UK. He has also had many group shows in South Africa, Yugoslavia, Germany, Brazil, Austria, Italy, USA, Argentine, Norway, Botswana, Japan, Switzerland & France.
An important thing to note about Peter Clarke is the multifaceted nature of his creativity. He is not just a visual artist but also a writer and a poet and has works published both locally and internationally. ARTTHROB has a wonderful biographical article on him which quotes his own words on this situation: “Had I been triplets, it would have made it much easier because each could have his own job. There are times when I go through a writing phase and there are times for phases of picture-making but there is never a dull moment."
(To see ARTTHROB’s article click on the link below)

lamplight 2006

The Kalk Bay Modern will be presenting a new exhibition on Wednesday 9th December. Be sure not to miss 3000 Hours, an exhibition of painting and textiles by Bronwen Findlay and Merle Payne-Barok. The opening starts at 6PM and the show runs until 31st December.
It will also feature textiles by local South African designers Yda Walt, Veldt, Sway, Fabric Nation, Ekoka San Prints and Keiskamma Art Project Embroideries.