By Barbara Loots
Walking into the opening night of the KKNK Visual Art exhibition, there was one very definite conversation topic on everyone’s lips… “Did you see the black square paintings? Go look at the black square paintings! Is a black square painting even art?”
This question is of course not novel. People have been pondering about what is art for ages. In fact, in 1882 Paris, Paul Bilhaud already exhibited an abstract black monochrome painting at the first Incoherent Art exhibition. A few years later in 1911, Jean Metzinger in response to the Cubist exhibit explained that this form of art is in response to the artist’s duty to create “a new rhythm for the benefit of humanity.” In this lies the understanding that abstract art is a type of language that communicates with its viewer in the form of colours, shapes and forms.
The conversations made my mind wander to the 1994 dramady by French playwright, Yasmina Reza, titled Art, in which you meet three quibbling friends. Mark starts off the play describing his friend Serge’s new acquisition… “It’s a canvas, about 5 feet by 4, white! The background is white, and if you screw up your eyes you can make out some fine, white, diagonal lines.” Serge accuses Mark of not being knowledgeable enough to understand contemporary art, stating “This is a field about which you know absolutely nothing, so how can you assert that any given object, which conforms to laws you don’t understand, is shit?” In all of this, their friend Yvan, the mediator, acknowledges that he doesn’t like the painting, even finds it a bit bizarre, but nevertheless can appreciate that Serge has a strong connection to its expression.
In the 2010 South African staging of Art, by Marthinus Basson, Wessel Pretorius played the opinionated Mark. “He just could not imagine it as art,” Pretorius contextualises it in a discussion I had with him at this year’s festival. In talking to Pretorius, it becomes clear that the true power of the play lies in the moment that you realise “the opinion becomes bigger than the work of art”. Pretorius admits he initially shared Mark’s view but, much like the character, later realised that “some people connect to art and some people don’t.”
Reflecting on that question in Art, my mind went back to the black squares at the KKNK art exhibition, and the confusion, wonder, and even total disbelief expressed by onlookers. So, I had to question who determines what art is and what isn’t?
Liberty Battson, the artist behind the KKNK exhibited black painting clearly speaks this language in the most expressive way. Meeting with Battson she also introduced me to Franli Meintjies, explaining that her black paint creation is not a free-standing piece, though people may sometimes perceive it as such. Battson and Meintjies in fact collaborated to bring a visual art exhibition to the KKNK.
Battson’s eleven high gloss big black square paintings on the walls frame Meintjies’ sculpture pieces. “Everything in this show that Fran used, is back to front, inside out” Battson explains. “When you look directly at Fran’s work, you won’t completely understand it, and when you look directly at my work, a plain black canvas, you don’t completely understand it ever.” Ultimately these dynamic artists wanted to create a work through which people look at art through art. “Look into my high gloss black paint works, and you see the reflection of Fran’s work,” Battson reveals.
“I work with text”, Meintjies adds. “So you will see one word, and in the reflection you will see another word. Then you play with the two meanings of the word, and then they are also in conversation with each other.” In so doing, the duo also encourages you to look in-between when you experience Meintjies’ hidden meanings through the reflection of Battson’s paintings.
“It is a little bit of a stretch from what I normally do, I won’t normally go this minimal,” Battson shares. “In asking the viewer to stretch themselves so far that I’ve eluded all figuration… I’m literally taking abstraction to the extreme.”
In the play Art it is that stretch that Serge perceived and Mark most vehemently questioned, emphasising that art is in the eye of the beholder.
“What I think is also interesting, is you see yourself, your reflection”, Meintjies elaborates. It thus also challenges the art lover to do some introspection when they look into the black mirror. “Black is the most reflective colour,” Battson further explain.
Lots of thought and consideration definitely went into this exhibit to determine how to best communicate the Inside Out message. “Had I painted all these white you would have never been able to understand the concept. That is how we are able to unpack the whole show in them.”
Although the exhibit Inside Out is designed as a complete unit that sees the individual artworks communicate with each other inside the bigger vision, an art lover (like Serge) could look at the pure black painting, have a connection with that and just buy one stand-alone piece as art. In that lies the genius of the minimalistic art Battson created to showcase Meintjies’ sculptures. In the words of Battson, “it is literally a show that is produced inside out, and the premise of the show is all about perspective.”
Lees meer: http://kknk.co.za/inside-out/