A patricidal imperative

2011-02-11 10:56

Pretoria-born artist Wayne Barker has been a man intent on patricide for some time now.

To understand this, one has to see his latest show, now on at the Standard Bank Gallery in Joburg.

The exhibition, titled Super Boring, features a body of work from across Barker’s career.

The exhibition includes fairly recent work dealing with themes from the contemporary post-apartheid South African condition and older work that engaged with subject matter of the tough years leading to democratisation.

This exhibition started out as a curatorial collaboration between SMAC Art Gallery, Andrew Lamprecht and Barker.

As it hangs in Joburg now, it has evolved into a retrospective exhibition with a particularly ironic name, Super Boring. After all, few artists carry Barker’s brand of dramatic appeal and excitement.

Barker’s earlier work sought to desecrate the sanctity of the artistic iconography all “decent white boys” were taught to revere during apartheid.

So with a patricidal intention, Barker went after the work of an older generation of South African artists.

To find his own creative vision, he had to question everything he inherited.

Then, the whole Afrikaner nationalist edifice was being called to order anyway. To find a new language the artist had to deconstruct the old.

But Barker is also fulfilling what arts writer Alan Crump observed: “Any young artist who does not possess a healthy degree of irreverence against previous art systems has some cause for concern ... and contemporary [artists] still insist that every generation should commit patricide of their previous masters.”

Barker is hard at it.

Most spectacular is his robust dialogue with the images of Afrikaner nationalist artist JH Pierneef. Barker asks the older artist’s work to stand and be tested for contemporary relevance.

By superimposing commercial imagery and other symbols, he forces the pictures to acknowledge a broader worldly truth that Pierneef’s ideology sought to frame out of the picture – the chaos of modern life, as represented by commercial symbols such as the Bakers Man on Blue Colonies, a mixed-medium piece dating back to 1995.

But Barker also goes after more contemporary figures, albeit as subject matter.

South Africa’s ultimate icon, Nelson Mandela, is juxtaposed on to a Pierneef along with the phrase “Black Label”.

Literature laureate JM Coetzee’s portrait is depicted in Barbarians, a mixed-media work that has the words “disgust” written out with neon light letters.

This use of neon light letters is carried across different works, even in installations such as His and Her Mozambique, another mixed-media work from 1995.

The show’s title, Super Boring, refers to a banner Barker saw in Venice while attending an art conference.

On it was written “I will not make any more boring art”, words that Californian conceptual artist John Baldessari applied to a 1971 artwork.

Barker culling this title is in step with his signature defiant irony and expands the artist’s usual anti-authority touch.

» Super Boring is on at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until April 9.

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