Art – Accidental monsters

2012-04-05 09:41

‘Paint is paint; surface is surface” was the unbending dictum set loose by American modernist art critic Clement Greenberg. It was around the 1950s at the height of the abstract expressionism era.

The news was loose, painters that were still trying to represent identifiable objects were declared obtuse and undesirably square. So the medium of painting itself had primacy over subject matter. Paint and surface didn’t need to pretend to be the things they were usually used to depict.

So you have to wonder what Greenberg would have thought of Carla Busuttil’s exhibition titled Exit Mode and currently hanging at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg.

Busuttil is a South African-born painter now based in Berlin. This is her first major show in South Africa since launching her career overseas.

As for Busuttil’s standing in the international market, consider that her entire 2008 Royal Academy of Art graduate exhibition, comprising 13 paintings, was bought by the grand patron of art and gallerist, Charles Saatchi.

This puts her in the same category as a few others who got a kick-start from Saatchi. These include Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, just to name-drop two.

In her artist’s statement, Busuttil declares: “Within my work, it is the quality of painting that matters. Content is secondary – always secondary. I am not interested in constructing images that shock or dictate, and I doubt whether painting or any other medium retains the power to do so.”

This is to say the artist takes the painterly quality of her work as central to her project, so the monsters and other grotesque figures conjured in these paintings are accidental creations – perhaps even incidental by-products of Busuttil’s lived experience.

These paintings bear testimony to the fact of Busuttil’s imbibing of Greenburg’s thought – though only partially, for she doesn’t fully abandon representation; she only denies its centrality. In fact, she invokes another South African artist on the matter, Candice Breitz. Making a point for the inevitability of coding external references in the painted motif, Breitz is on record saying: “If we consume something, we have to shit it out.”

So because she is a painter in the world, that world will be manifested in her paintings, but only as an incidental effect of the process. The piece titled Blues Super Swinger carries Busuttil’s process most eloquently. It’s a variation of blues and violets painted against a black backdrop.

The brushwork speaks to her generous application of paint. There’s also the grace of the painters wrist evident in the line work. It is possible to read a portrait here, but is it a man or a character from Sesame Street? The painter doesn’t care to help us. The answer is not important, only the joy or whatever emotions the painting lifts out of you or its maker.

Anybody Can Be Anybody, on the other hand, along with a few other works, has a clearly identifiable depiction. It’s a corpse of a man or woman rendered in opaque and chalky colours. In this piece, Busuttil’s attention turns to broad fields of colour and flat surfaces. She does well.

Other images, such as Poppy Fields Forever, Front Row and The Goonies, are compositions of groups of figures gathered from a variety of sources. These include magazines, newspapers and library archival sources. There’s the festive mob, the group of dark militia in the poppy fields and an amorphous click of friends atop a vehicle on the way to god knows where. Perhaps in an Exit Mode? Either way, the artist will say it’s not important.

» Exit Mode is on at the Goodman in Joburg until April 28

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