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Artist Room



27.03.21 - 29.05.21

Cape Town

There is a bust of Caesar which appears to have risen up from the past. Or, rather, has been sunk into the quicksand of the past, cracked and unfavoured by the pared-down, minimalist landscape which surrounds. He’s been stabbed in the back. Not by Brutus; by the artist, and to some extent, by us. We cast venerated figures in stone so that they might outlast us, pry their eyes open so they might bear witness to our ceaseless rubble-making, the ongoing catastrophe we call history,(1) so that they might themselves become rubble, resurrected, made rubble again. All this is contained in the enlarged eyes, the up-yours gesture, the cartoonisation of high art, the rubble made a parody of rubble.

The underlying impulse seems to be to get out of the head (or ass) of academia and try a “bad painting” on for size. It’s true that Callan Grecia has expressed a desire to turn away from his years of training at Rhodes towards a discipline of “raw art”: go into the studio each day with the spirit of curiosity and an appetite for surprise. What might a bad painting, or a failed painting, reveal?

Grecia has come out the other side with an exhibition he calls “an exploration into cubism.” They are cubist insofar as they are fractured and incongruous to the traditional logics of portraiture. They also borrow from the visual language of publicity, which throws them into the arena of pop art. Hair is yellow. Eyes are blue. Nipples are pink. Skin so shiny it looks more like a waxed car than a human face. At least three of the figures are wearing Adidas. Everybody is smoking these miracle cigarettes which don’t ash. Neither do they emit clouds of smoke; their forms are clean as punctuation. They resemble speech bubbles, into which some calculated bit of copy will soon apply. Their gaze is anime-style: oversized and near-blinded by a pop of imaginary light. Tits, muscles, and asses, when they aren’t “cubist” (as in boxy), are equally surreal, strained and swollen as balloons.

That these paintings appear humourous is due to the fact that all pop art is something of a joke. (The punchline? The pop artworks, also, are for sale!) That they are both seductive and perturbing reveals cubism’s libidinal desire for multiple perspectives, the logical conclusion of wanting and, and, and. If they are abrasive to the eye, it is because they are what Grecia calls “hyper-referential,” stuffed with ready-made identifiers that strike different viewers from different angles, from fine art to comics to streetwear and so on. “The viewer doesn’t need my permission,” Grecia says. Thus, these portraits become the negative space into which any number of associations might stick. Cubism, in this case, operates like a blender: sucking associations in, chopping them up, and spitting them back out all mangled and deranged.

Then, there are the outliers: two portraits, both drab brown and characterised by somewhat reckless linework, with all the features of their faces coagulating in the space where their third eyes should be. These two encapsulate such a profusion of anxiety that they manage somehow to whittle down all the maximalism of the other works to a single fear: rather than us consuming images, images have consumed us. Images have, in many ways, seduced us, possessed us, bullied us and, in some cases, literally warped our bodies and faces. At this point, where one might expect a punchline, Grecia’s cubist-pop-art takes a turn towards the dark. Consumed by images, the simulation (in the Baudrillardian sense) (2) is made real, subsumes the real. If a portrait is a representation of a person, these are portraits of the soup of representations in which the person has been lost.

There’s this line from a Ted Hughes poem that I love: “The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work / That points at him amazed.”(3) Hughes creates a room full of mirrors, obliterating distinctions between artist, subject, object, and viewer. Grecia has put two little moons in this show: one crescent, one full with pointy teeth, each with bright red eyes. They have stepped back like artists gazing amazed (with not a small amount of embarrassment) at a work that points at us, its mirror, amazed. Begrudging witnesses to our catastrophe.

1. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations (trans. Harry Zohn). New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
2. Jean Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra (trans. Sheila Faria Glaser). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
3. Ted Hughes, “Full Moon and Little Freida,” Wodwo. London: Faber and Faber, 1971. p. 182.

Text by Keely Shinners

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