Anton Karstel
Property, Faith & Beauty and Other Recent Paintings

30.10.14 – 07.12.14
Stellenbosch

Property, Faith & Beauty and Other Recent Paintings is Anton Karstel’s third solo exhibition with SMAC Gallery. The exhibition features new bodies of work in varying themes and formats, linked by Karstel’s recognizable gestural style of painting. The severity and weight of the subject matter that Karstel probes is concealed within the undeniable appeal of his attractively heavy-laden canvasses. Karstel is well versed and highly skilled at camouflaging the content of his work behind a seductive and accessible painterly veneer. The unwitting audience has regularly fallen prey to Karstel’s bluff. The paintings are praised for their beauty and skillful execution, whilst the true content escapes the superficial gaze of most viewers. Karstel deals with serious political and social issues from the vantage point of an angst-ridden white South African male, who has lived through both the pre- and post-Apartheid eras. The artist grapples with the issues from the past that burden his generation, but simultaneously identifies warning signs and trends which are emerging today and threaten a repeat of the history which he desperately wishes to put to rest.

Karstel has been described as an intense and “relentless” painter – interrogating and processing a subject through a compulsive regurgitation process. This has resulted in an exhaustive series of studies and revisions such as Youth Day, Karstel’s previous exhibition of more than one hundred (and expanding) renditions of the old South African flag, exhibited in 2012 at SMAC Cape Town as a single installation. In the same tone, the new exhibition comprises different sets of paintings, which have been developed over a period of two years.

The Faith and Beauty series reinterprets images from a black and white Nazi propaganda film which has been reappearing on the internet in recent times, promoted and followed by a young European generation disillusioned by their economic fate and embracing the perilous allure of the extreme right-wing. This series also recalls Karstel’s earlier ‘Liggaamsoefeninge’ (physical excercise) paintings. The images taken from the Nationalist government’s physical education manuals from the 1960s indirectly promoted the idea of a physically superior race. Some of the new paintings are painted and presented on a monumental scale, encircling and captivating the viewer within the shadowy world of serene, athletic and sexually charged female gymnasts.

Echoing the artist’s earlier works that depict police brutality and state violence during the eighties, is a series of paintings based on newspaper images of the immediate aftermath of the infamous Marikana massacre, where striking mine-workers at Lonim Platinum Mines were gunned down by the South African police in 2012. These highly abstracted paintings of barely recognizable dead bodies are unnervingly beautiful, resonating with vibrant, colourful blobs of fleshy oil paint.

Karstel also continues to scrutinize the five Apartheid Prime Ministers, again exemplified in this exhibition by a large, mawkish rendition of the ex- first couple; PW and Elize Botha. The couple is depicted in the flower garden of their retirement home in George on South Africa’s picturesque and sufficiently remote “gold coast”, where many politicians, military leaders and businessmen retired in the late 1990s.

The Property series is Karstel’s most recent exploration and highlights the continuing and growing wealth gap and class divide in South Africa. The titles of the works also serve to capture a specific moment in time, freezing the location and implied value of the properties advertised on the Property24 website and linking them to another perceived asset class – contemporary art. It allows the prospective owner of the artwork to track the growth of his investment in financial terms. Karstel is underlining and exposing the hypocrisy and dilemma of a blatantly commercial and money-driven art world. The property concept is expanded to include rural settings and farms, which further accentuates the contentious and explosive land issue in South Africa.

The debate surrounding the relevance of painting has formed part of Karstel’s career since the early nineties, where various new trends and modes of production have enjoyed more attention over different eras such as installation, video, photography and performance art, to name a few. Internationally, we have seen how certain painters have managed to remain relevant and reinvent the medium in the wake of new forms of visual expression. A proliferation of imagery available on the Internet and the general accessibility of images have created a myriad of opportunities for inventive painters. Artists such as Gerhard Richter, Peter Doig and Luc Tuymans have, over a sustained period, cemented painting as an equal to contemporary modes of expression and enabled innovative painters to constantly re-interpret the visual material of the time. In the South African context, Karstel remains one of the most talented and important painters who has experimented and evolved his practice both stylistically and conceptually.