By Mark Jenkins
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Although it includes the work of 38 artists, “South African Voices: A New Generation of Printmakers” isn’t especially diverse. The cohesiveness of the selection, at Washington Printmakers Gallery, owes something to the artists’ youth and to a shared teacher, Lucas Nkgweng. It also may reflect the taste of the exhibition’s organizer, Anne Gordon, a former Washingtonian who’s lived for 20 years in South Africa, where she now runs Vula Amehlo Art Development.
The organization encourages visual artists in a country that has other priorities. South Africa is still building a post--apartheid society, Gordon notes, and economic and professional opportunities often take precedence.
The work on display is mostly black--and--white, sometimes with splashes of color, and generally representational. Many of the artists do portraits or scenes from everyday life. Lebogang Sithole’s atmospheric drypoints depict guitarists in orange and green. In similar arrays of strongly incised black lines, Vusi Mfupi portrays a woman gardener and John Taouss Tuyisabe pictures a man’s downward--looking face. The human visage is also central to Lehlongonolo Mashaba, one of the few abstractionists, who renders heads as jumbles of lines and shapes.
While many of the prints document the country today, the past is not forgotten. One print is based on an apartheid--era photo of exiled singer Miriam Makeba being served by a white shoe--store clerk, an everyday occurrence in much of the world that was subversive in South Africa. Less pointedly, Bevan De Wet exquisitely etches iconic animals and objects, from a springbok to wooden shoes and pottery shards.
De Wet, Nkgweng and Cloudia Hartwig are among the most technically sophisticated. Hartwig, who prints for noted South African artist William Kentridge, crafts elegant horizontal tableaux of birds, hands and flowers. Nkgweng’s “Drilled” was printed from a plate marked by drilling tools, yielding one of the most distinctive prints. Should his students follow this example, South African printmaking could indeed become eye--opening.
With their sleek and shiny forms, Otto Scherer’s works evoke the streamlined metal sculptures of an acknowledged influence, Constantin Brancusi. But Scherer’s principal material is actually ceramic, as he occasionally discloses by cutting his simple objects open. “Homage to Brancusi” is a set of spheres, split in half and mounted so the two sides don’t align. Such disruptions are characteristic of the Romanian--born German artist, whose work’s Bauhaus--style simplicity can be subject to assault. His “Homage to Fontana,” mostly coated in black, looks like a ball that exploded.
Scherer often plates his pieces with platinum or gold, but sometimes leaves them a tan color that simulates smoothly sanded wood. (When he uses real wood, it’s often rough--hewn.) Torpedo shapes are common in the artist’s work, and his creations include super--efficient wood--burning stoves with the contours of vertical torpedoes. While no such practical items are included in this show, Scherer’s first in North America, the influence of industrial design is evident. The artist’s standing and hanging works are cleanly precise, yet sometimes cleaved by whimsy.
Six photographers from the storied German state of Saxony--Anhalt compile their disparate visions in “Linger On!” at the Goethe--Institut. The title comes from “Faust,” whose author spent most of his life in nearby Weimar. If it’s difficult to link Goethe to these sets of images, it can be equally hard to connect them to each other.
The most confrontational are by the two women, Iris Brosch and Carina Linge. Brosch places Botticelli--like beauties amid fashion--mag spreads and hippie--style happenings; her photos (and a video) depict elaborately outfitted yet mostly naked young people. Linge models her stark work on Renaissance canvases, with their intimations of death; in the disturbing “Lady with a Rabbit,” the blank--faced lady’s eyes are outside the frame, and the cradled animal is dead and skinned.
More sociologically, Matthias Ritzmann photographs men in clubs, displaying their dedication to dogs and cats, sports, country--and--western dancing and of course cars, both real and toy. Max Baumann’s black--and--white portraits are intimate and eerie, showing their subjects with eyes closed.
Saxony--Anhalt is known for its woodland, but it’s not pristine, as Reinhard Hentze and Robert Schlotter note. In the former’s landscapes, trees recolonize abandoned industrial property; in the latter’s, peaceful vistas belie the former tension of the sites’s position between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. In a region whose borders have repeatedly been redrawn, every forest is a potential battleground.
Connersmith’s current group exhibition is titled “The Works: Recent Painting, Sculpture, Video,” and most of the art is from the past five years. Yet it includes a 1962 painting by Washington Color School member Howard Mehring, who died 35 years ago, and a 2006 piece by light artist Leo Villareal that doesn’t showcase his latest techniques.
Many items are footnotes to the artists’ latest show at the gallery. Julie Roberts’s paintings depict children who took the Kindertransport from Nazi Germany to safety in Britain, while her colleague Kenny Hunter’s sculptures involve birds. His “The Wasteland” shows nature perched uncertainly atop a oil drum. Birds also feature in Erik Thor Sandberg’s three meticulous neoclassical/surrealist paintings. In the largest of them, a nude woman rides a deer and a boar and is posed just at the point where wild forest yields to cultivated fields.
Maria Friberg’s short video is a visual pun on its title, “Transmission”; it observes moving cars from underneath, the better to observe their workings. Equally kinetic is Villareal’s “Chasing Rainbows (Horizontal),” whose lighted tubes recall Dan Flavin’s fluorescent--era pieces. But the tubes actually contain LEDs, which allow myriad colors and patterns. At the other extreme, Mehring’s “Untitled” is a rectangle of calm, mottled yellow. It doesn’t shimmy or shout, but its subtle gradations have the power to transfix.