Review – A Tom Waits visual feast

2013-05-19 14:00

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A hundred artists have created a unique tribute to the legend

Few creative geniuses address the human condition with its hangovers as alluringly as that postmodern cowboy we know as Tom Waits.

Tunes like Old 55, for driving home after a wild night, or a druggie’s meditation on infanticide in Smuggler’s Waltz are but a tip of why Waits matters. The American pop sage has managed to shaft himself into our global collective consciousness as an actor and writer, but most of all as a crooner.

Waits is the subject of an art exhibition curated by Gordon Froud at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery in Auckland Park.

Titled For No Man, the show includes the work of 100 artists. They all created paintings, installations and sculptures, along with various mixed-media works, in search of the meaning of Waits.

Hence the resulting show is a bold attempt to capture the complexity of a man with an inimitable ability to simplify the human condition. Waits indisputably knows how to give us all of life’s pity and hope, grandeur and degradation, in bite-size chunks of poetic stanzas and a few bars of music.

All his classics since Closing Times, his 1973 debut album, continue to issue his charm like trinkets of a kind. In fact, many of the artists included in For No Man sought to channel that magic by creating and naming their offerings in tribute to some of Waits’ most memorable hits.

Carl Jeppe titled his wood cut after one of Waits’ most loved tunes, I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You. It’s a witty joke because so many of us have fallen in love with Waits.

To centralise him as a music man, some artists chose to work on LP-sized discs or circular formats, roughly 30cm in diameter. In the end, what we get is art that looks like specially minted LPs. Other artists, like Sybrand Wiechers, have chosen the less obvious approach by creating a contraption that looks like The Heart of Saturday Night, a clever reference to Waits’ 1974 release. It’s complete with gauges, spring coils and sprockets. Wiechers follows his muse’s sense of images to get to his chosen motif and the exhibition finds its strengths in these playfully interpretative works.

As viewers walk across the gallery floor

to take in the work, the absence of Waits’ music, which should have been put on constant replay, stalks the room.

It’s like a harbinger of the end of Waits’ perennial genius, which has flowed steadily for four decades since he stepped into our collective awareness.

» Tom Waits For No Man runs at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery until May 29

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