Saddle up and explore the horse

2011-10-03 08:20

Art in celebration of all things equine has shaped a newly inaugurated exhibition in Rosebank, Joburg.

Horse: Multiple Views of a Singular Beast is curated by Ricky Burnett.

The show comprises the work of 60 South African artists across different media and stretches across two gallery spaces, including Everard Read Gallery’s main art parlour and the hip cylindrical tower, Circa on Jellicoe.

Names like Willem Boshoff, Pippa Skotnes, Beezy Bailey and Phillemon Hlungwani are but a few of the luminaries dreaming up their own version of steeds.

The sheer size of the show is certain to have giddy viewers losing their bearings in its meandering maze. So when walking the gallery floor, it will help to keep novelist Percival Everett’s infamous dictum in mind: “The horse isn’t supposed to make the decisions. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that the rider must make the decisions. If the horse gets ahead of you, you might get left behind.”

With that said, an easy, coherent viewing should start at the main gallery’s northern entrance. First passing Wilma Cruise’s bronze sculpture just outside the door – a bronze steed carrying its shadow on its back – you’ll meet Neil Rodger’s illustrative oil painting of a tan-on-white coloured stallion.

The image is a simple idealised picture of the beast on whose account this gathering of artistic visions has been convened.

The labyrinthine drill through the charmed cavern should then unfold like an onion peel, revealing multiple imaginative approaches to what a horse can mean.

Take Claudia Shneider’s contribution for a start. It’s a cluster of watercolour sketches on paper. These are painted freely and loosely to make room for the comical, if only subversive, reading.

For at face value, it would appear that Shneider’s humorous overtone is an act of subversion against the apparent pretensions of grandeur associated with the white-cube gallery space. However, laughter can easily turn into tears.

Hence, these images take on a sinister meaning. The largest of the lot is titled Horse Pittal. The sketch is quite a gruesome, if not robust, sexual encounter between a proverbial horse and a kneeling female figure approached from behind.

The line quality is heavy and impassioned, not delicate at all. In a purple sketch titled Unicorn, Shneider hypersexualises the mythical pony by replacing its horn with a penis, emphasising the phallic symbolism of its
definitive anatomy.

Shneider’s other series of paintings seem to make a case for her technical facility as a painter. Just in case the earlier sketches taint her credentials, as it were. These are a set of five oil-on-canvas paintings.

They present multiple studies of a horse’s head rendered in scumbling and glazing. Art history has been heavily referenced by a number of works too. Simon Stone and Johannes Phokela have found fertile fodder in the work of Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. They both revisit his Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus.

The work seems to account for the horse’s complicity to man’s gruesome crimes throughout history, or mythology. While Stone presents a petite mixed-media sketch on paper, Phokela has gone typically large, almost life-size.

He responded to the curator’s call with his idiosyncratic painterly dialect.

Phokela has taken liberties with Rubens’ masterpiece as only he can, painting his trademark scar on to the picture to disrupt the field of vision. He also included some symbolic objects like a human skull, which is used by one of the daughters to keep from falling.

He also includes a bunch of bananas, which fall out of the other nymph’s hands. Phokela has inscribed a text on to his lavish surface: “Necesse est assimilatio venna et renisus.” The phrase loosely translates into “assimilation is inevitable”, which is also the painting’s title.

Across the floor from Phokela’s work are John Meyer’s brooding oil paintings. One of them he called The Return of De La Rey. It depicts the Afrikaner hero in military fatigues, arriving on horseback to be received by relieved admirers.

Beyond the lone-working stars, Willie Bester and Zwelethu Mthethwa have found here a rare opportunity to collaborate.

They combine Bester’s insatiable compulsion to put found objects in glass boxes with Mthethwa’s frank photography.

The result is a candid comment on electric power and harnessed horse power.

The work juxtaposes objects such as batteries, circuit boards and electric meters with pictures of horses and carts in a junkyard. These are carts normally used in semirural townships to collect recyclable material. The collaboration works seamlessly to the benefit of both artists.

As far as sculptures go, none is as dynamic as Brendhan Dickerson’s Horse of a Different Colour. Let’s call it sculpture aspiring to the state of drawing. Suspended from the ceiling, it’s made from a rod of iron shaped and twisted into vibrant energetic lines. The result is a physical “drawing” of a hysterical horse in the middle of wild explosion. The work also plays on metaphors referring to horses as flames.

Wayne Barker, Anthea Moys and James Sey have responded with multimedia work. Barker, apart from some sketches on paper, has made an installation of textual neon lights which reads: “We’ll ride them someday, ride them someday.”

In fact, this reads as a natural continuation of his DVD projection titled “They talk about bridles, they talk about saddles but where are the bloody horses...”

Moys’ sound sculpture occupies the stairway at Circa like a ghost. You just hear the sound of galloping horses as you enter the gallery only you can’t see the horse. You only know it from the sound it makes. Like a haunting presence that never quite completely reveals itself but keeps stalking visitors.

Rodney Place, whose work hangs at the bottom floor of the Circa tower, merges the horse heritage of Lesotho with the American Wild West cowboy tropes. His work includes photographic stills and a sculptural assemblage.

The images are titled: Pulane – Arrival; Pulane – Drawing; Naledi – Leaning. The series works like a sequential performance of a semi-nude female figure. She wears a traditional blanket, a straw hat and is strapped with a pistol.

So she’s morphed into a hybrid Mosotho bad horse girl of sorts. Her horse is a cross between an ironing board and a saddle stand.

But themes of mutation are not new to the Basotho. Like “mojaha pere” is not mojapere, which is to say: “To saddle a horse is not gobble a steed!” But as to say don’t be shy to ask, as Place did here: “Is that a gun in your blanket or are you glad to see me?”

» Horse is on at the Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank, Joburg, until October 30. The show’s catalogue is published this month and features contributions from the likes of Gcina Mhlophe, Mandla Langa, Mongane Wally Serote and Sean O’Toole, among others.

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