Sampling monkeys

2011-10-07 16:24

Of course, we know that if that genius oddball of jazz history Thelonious Monk was a painter he would have been Jean-Michel Basquiat, the flyboy of the 1980s New York art scene. It’s so because both these black superheroes composed grand spectacles of genius out of infantile gestures with unequalled dexterity.

But then, we must find out what Monk is doing in a Ransome Stanley painting titled Monk’s Hat. The piece forms part of Stanley’s solo exhibition, which is now on at Gallery MOMO in Parktown North, Joburg. It’s titled Shake Your Monkey.

Stanley is based in Munich, Germany. He was born in London to a Nigerian father and a German mother. This diversity and plurality of identity provides his pictorial language with a potent sinew.

The painter, as the accompanying text explains, also “utilises the media in its various forms – from magazines, newspaper and television to the internet and beyond – with its flood of images as an archive, from which he selects a combination of images, giving each image a new context”.

Stanley uses drawings, photographs, paintings, and internationally recognised symbols and logos such as promotional products or images from Western-genre comics.

So a single painted panel comprises fragments and clues that create new meaning from his selection of appropriated images.

Like a DJ or music producer would impulsively chop and combine different sounds to form new harmonies, Stanley brings together disparate signs to create unique motifs. A process we accept in music as sampling.

In fact, it’s just like Monk’s playing. He capaciously samples lines or phrases and moments of music for emphasis or simply for sheer enjoyment of the luxury of how they sound.

In Monk’s Hat, Stanley includes a portrait of the jazz icon along with a Victorian male figure holding a top hat.

The photorealistic portrait looks like a picture or a mirror reflection of Monk himself, standing next to gallery visitors looking at the same painting.

Seen this way, the Victorian male figure looks like a crudely drawn circus poster or graffiti on a wall; more so because of how the artist cleverly manipulates his picture planes, emphasising the panel’s flatness in areas while maintaining a two-dimensional quality in other parts.

This lends itself to a visual game of a picture within a picture, making the viewer uncertain in discerning which spatial plane is being depicted.

The same pastiche and collage-like approach is pursued in Haircut, an oil-on-canvas panel. In this image, Stanley combines motifs culled from street-corner barbershop signage and elsewhere.

There’s representation of a nude female holding up a zebra’s head. The beast’s head appears to replace hers and thus lends to the painting certain “mythological” theme as she becomes a half-zebra, half-human character.

The figure emerges out of a black plane, or hangs against it. In fact, it might as well be pasted on it. This play on the nature of the surface is central to reading Stanley’s work. His use of black questions and debates the use of colour itself.

Black has traditionally been seen as a non-colour in art history. However, by using it so boldly, Stanley offers and argues that “it has depth, it is absence of light”, though equally potent on the palette.

There’s also the ubiquitous scribbling akin to incisions on walls. These include words, phrases and drawings. Stanley constantly expands his personal cultural background by integrating Asian and North American elements.

In doing so, he further enriches his cross-cultural pictorial language.

Hence there are, because of the open-ended nature of his iconography, as many meanings to his oeuvre as there are personalities that experience it.

» Shake Your Monkey is on at Gallery MOMO in Parktown North, Joburg, until October 17


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