Requiem for a wounded landscape

2011-06-03 15:34

A walk through Alan Crump’s ­retrospective exhibition, Fearless ­Vision, which currently hangs at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and will be on this year’s National Arts Festival’s main programme, should end with a central question ­reserved for all tributes: does it capture the kernel of Crump’s ­complexity?

As it is, the show exhibits only a fraction of the man’s effusive presence. We can only glean what his ­concerns were through the allusions in these remaining pictures.

Crump was way more than an artist in the ordinary sense of that title. He was not just a creative guy who made startling images of the world.

In this show, curator Frederico Freschi presents us with a ­collection of watercolour paintings and drawings. These are selected from across a career which spanned four decades.

Crump was one of the youngest professors ever to work at Wits University. Prior to that, he had earned a masters degree at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Arts. He would later receive a Fulbright scholarship for postgraduate studies at the visual arts department of the University of California, Los Angeles; followed by further study at New York University.

There he worked as studio ­assistant to performance artist Vito Acconci and the now-famous sculptor, Richard Serra. It figures, for though this current exhibition mainly shows Crump’s paintings and drawings, he was actually trained as a ­sculptor.

These sculptural sensibilities are apparent in a series of charcoal and paintstick drawings on rag ­titled The Wedge Series. They were produced on his return to South Africa from New York in 1976.

The dark and heavy geometric shapes – through Crump’s use of visual space, composition and constraint – become a reflection on power politics and their effect on our lived environment.

The show’s strength, however, lies in the ubiquitous range of monochromatic dark greys and swashes of black.

Here, Crump has left us a requiem to wounded landscapes and the murderous effects of man’s technical advancement on the ­environment. So there’s a lot of ­pathos in the work.

Crump died in 2009 at the age of just 60. But from engaging with his work, it’s probable he would have seen his own death and burial as a reunion with nature. In these works, the artist’s ­concern for the environment and nature in general takes a very real and local focus compared to what is mostly a generalised and ­globalised “green” discourse.

There’s a series of watercolours that looks at cut palm trees in Rosebank, Joburg. These represent the many trees cut down to make way for the Gautrain project. ­Another series in this vein is Mapalane Burnt Forestry (1993). Here the dead stumps and tree trunks ­resemble a burial ground with the rows of stumps made to resemble tombstones.

The work takes on a post­apocalyptic feel with Crump’s treatment of mine dumps and excavation sites. These landscapes feel like the sight of a dead and depleted planet, the surface of the moon or even Mars.

But what becomes apparent is that beyond the concerns with a particular theme, the artist was ­devising a visual vocabulary for himself.

There’s an attempt to dispense with images that are reduced to mere retinal signs of communication. He is trying to find a potent way of conveying the visual charge of his emotions or anxieties in the work. Even images that would ­easily have been simple still-lifes are relocated from domesticity to the broader natural world.

The Kitchen Series presents a beef fillet on a plate and the forest as one. Here Crump re-examines raw meat and forlorn food ­ with the same sentiment he ­reserves for wounded nature; as if to remind us that what’s in the freezer as food and the murdered trees in a burnt forest are singular puzzles of one living ­organism called our environment.

» Fearless Vision is on at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until June 12, it then moves to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from June 30 to July 10. There will be walkabouts with the ­curators on July 1, 2, 6 and 7 at noon

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