Rodney Place

While Dorothee Kreutzfeldt took me around the Jo’burg city blocks of the Urban Scenographies project – from the here-and-now noisy Park Street Taxi Rank to the otherworldly calm Eritrean buildings – I kept thinking of Francis Bacon, the Irish painter, not the English philosopher.
My thoughts about Bacon had something to do with the reconciliation of affections – really an aesthetic struggle where the artist forgets his or her status and professionally engages something larger than the self. This is finally what makes art worthwhile, I thought, both to make and to see.
Bacon was an accomplished interior designer until he decided in his late 30’s to become a painter. He took off to Spain and learnt his craft (and affection) copying and reworking Velasquez paintings.
In the 50’s Bacon invented the drawn-in second frame or cage in his paintings, a device to reconcile, or as he put it, to see more clearly the visceral bodyness of the people who inhabited, writhed in and generally messed up his minimalist, cool and evenly colored interior designs.
Bacon’s drawn-in second frames became a post-modern benchmark or mannerism – used by South African artists like Kentridge and Phokela – to denote contemporary self-consciousness, often a justification for drawing and painting in classical ways without the modernist pressures of consistent subjective and technical innovation.
But Bacon’s paintings always seem more genuinely a dilemma of human affections than subsequent artsy affectations, despite the pressure of success in the market on his later work. Johannesburg, particularly in these urban city blocks, quite literally has frames of the seemingly irreconcilable. What the eye sees the mind too often rejects – we know this too well in our own history – so the struggle of affections is not merely formal but deeply existential. As Johannesburg reluctantly grows into a metropolis from its tidy provincial modernity, these struggles come hot and fast and demand an open idea of aesthetics in the journey of the mind through art.
But art always exists in context with a lot of background noise, and the 20 artists from Africa and Europe involved in Urban Scenographies, come to Johannesburg surrounded by too much art noise, both local and global. Locally, Johannesburg has a well-established and long-standing, if narrow, art market – a result of the apartheid years where a lot of money had no particular place to go, or wasn’t allowed to leave. Art is part of the over-capitalization, hard copy habits of these years, as well as our deeply rooted Anglo-Saxon ideas of art as charm and decoration.
Globally, artists seem to have replaced art, as objects, in a program devised by the politically castrated European Left and advertised as some kind of make-right for Colonialism. In effect, in abject divisions which would have made the Victorians (or Nazis)proud, otherworld artists are neatly categorized into nationalities, races, ethnicities and genders ready to board a European subsidized Noah’s Art , a ship built apparently to save them from the flood of globalization, but which feels more like a mobile zoo. Oddly, the South African National Arts Council now seems to have subscribed to this program as well.
Francis Bacon once said that the reason he started painting so late in his life was that he had not found subject matter to sustain him. Artists necessarily tell half-truths – Bacon spent a lot of his youth shagging his dad’s stable boys – but the challenge of subject matter as something that causes and sustains a rise to professionalism in art, still holds true.
So perhaps these relatively young artists will don their iPods of silence to shut out too much art noise, and allow their brief contact with irreconcilable Johannesburg to – if we can still use this word – inspire and sustain their lifelong commitment to making art with difficulty.

Rodney Place, February 2008


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