Jane Alexander’s Survey captivates the eye

2013-12-01 14:01

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There probably could not have been a better time for the Stevenson Gallery to hang an exhibition of Jane Alexander’s work at their Joburg premises.

Consider that this is the month that Alexander’s Untitled sculpture sold for a record R5.5 million at a Strauss & Co’s Joburg auction, making her the highest-selling living South African artist.

The Stevenson show comprises two sets of works. One simply titled Survey: Cape of Good Hope (2005-9), which is a series of 54 black-and-white photo montages or manipulated photographs and images combined to create a large-scale slide show sequence.

The slide show is then projected on to the quite cube gallery’s wall. It features pictures of what can be called a view of desperation behind the proverbial Cape of Good Hope.

Alexander’s lens pans through the dilapidation and disrepair that never makes the tourist brochures. She gazes at the majestic Table Mountain from the perspective of someone standing on the desolate and lonesome beach of Robben Island.

The grand mount becomes a gloomy lump of dead rock. In some of these pictures of the Cape’s shabby locations, Alexander’s include her iconic figurines.

She then plays a visual game where the viewer starts looking for these cute monsters. Every four-legged animal is given a second look to ensure it’s not one of Alexander’s creatures.

The slide show is offered alongside a sculptural installation titled Infantry With Beast (2008-10).

It comprises a phalanx, or rectangular military-like formation of 27 marching hybrid figures. These creatures march on a red carpet with a small dog-like animal crossing their path. The work is in the gallery’s long room, which suits its rectangular floor layout.

Its visual language continues the trail blazed by Alexander’s historic Bom Boys and Frontier With Ghost among others. These too included her dog-headed boy figures in different guises.

It’s part of the artist’s long-standing and extensive inquiry into the complexity of issues and themes that deal with injustice, conformity, exploitation, identity and violence.

The disciplined march on a blood-red carpet require little reading to understand its textual inferences.

Much of South Africa’s historic violence, like that dished out by the state’s security apparatuses, grew out of notions of conformity and the military.

Think here of recent cases of police brutality and those meted out by the apartheid forces.

Alexander was born in Joburg in 1959 just months ahead of the Sharpville massacre and lived through the monstrosity of the apartheid state.

Her work has as a result often dealt with ideas drawn from living through that experience.

However, this issue-based approach doesn’t mean her work is not without aesthetic merit.

There are experiments with ideas of ugliness as a metaphor for evil here.

The form and sculptural treatment of the work is worth the contemplative time spent before them in the gallery.

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