21.03.15 – 02.05.15
FORGED is an exhibition of new sculptures by the artists Gail Catlin, Ruann Coleman and Barend de Wet.
Forged, the past participle of the verb forge, describes a process whereby metals – iron, bronze and variety of alloys – are heated and hammered into shape in the heat of a furnace. Forge is also possessed of wholly positive associations. We speak of forging ahead in the sense of initiating progress, innovating and pushing the boundaries.
The word forge resonates a heroic mystique. It invokes the magic of making, the alchemy of transfiguring mental fantasy into concrete reality. Forge implies the hand skill whereby an object in-the-making is brought to perfection by the touch of the fingers, caressing, pinching, squeezing, smoothing, patting, prodding and indulging in other actions that epitomize the love materials inspire in the artist. Forge implies majesty of intention, the urge to bring something superb and enduring into being. An epic monumentality is the goal of every sculptor – though rarely can they afford to achieve it – but in this exhibition, Gail Catlin, Ruann Coleman and Barend de Wet have achieved an undeniable, if somewhat antic grandeur.
Even when the irrepressible Barend de Wet was a student at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at Cape Town University in the 1990’s, the stern exigencies of academe never repressed his exuberance. De Wet is the Dada prankster who believes art should be fun, and he makes it entertaining. He is the sparking fuse who refuses any tuck with convention, the daredevil who breaks every institutional rule of art.
A glowing, child-like faith in dreams, legends, fairy tales and that miraculous site somewhere over the rainbow, is the keynote of Barend de Wet’s buoyant, popsicle-coloured metal sculptures. These are proclamations of faith in a better tomorrow, drawing on the usual panoply of propitious symbols such as stars, rockets, the innocence of baby blue and pink and the festive glitter of silver. The inspiration for these sculptures stemmed from a photograph of a Russian site where an array of old rockets, painted green, blended perfectly into the landscape of larches, birches and firs, creating a memorable union of nature and technology. The rocket, as opposed to the missile, is used in space exploration, and it enlarges our horizons and constantly reveals far more about the universe.
Baby Blue (2015) and Baby Pink (2015) are gendered. An ideal couple of the future as they proudly stand their ground, and rise up in clearly defined sections of different facetted geometric designs. To defeat gravity and reach for the sky is a fundamental urge of all mankind, and de Wet’s “Pinky” and “Bluey” adhere to this tradition of towers, obelisks and totems.
There is also a lazy serpent which only achieved full definition when de Wet welded a series of arcs together, and discovered, to his own surprise, that he had created this animal. The plump, relaxed snake is far too guileless to have ever colluded with Eve, or disclosed the secrets of the Tree of Knowledge. It has a faucet at one end, and sprawling on the original black cast iron factory floors of the gallery, it reminds the viewer of some bloated, creepy-crawly basking in eternal sunshine. Snake (2015) represents the umbilical cord rooting humanity in the earth in many cultures, and certainly no one could appear more solidly grounded than “Pinky” and “Bluey”.
Most of Ruann Coleman’s works consist of ordinary common objects that exist in urban contexts everywhere. The bulk of his creations began their lives as discards found in scrap heaps and metal yards, and usually he subjects them to the minimum of artistic interference.
When art critic Robert Hughes saw the American minimalist, Carl Andre’s rectangle of bricks, at the TATE, he said the piece only became recognizable as a work of art within the art gallery, but if it were to be seen on a building site, the bricks would revert to their original condition as common building materials.
Asked how one would recognize Kinky (2015) as a work of art if you saw it in a scrapyard, Coleman conceded that the question is “ a tricky one” and stated:
“A lot of my work consists of rods, poles, pipes, girders, and I am aware of their beauty at first glance. However, as these objects exist in such overloaded visual environments, it is impossible to see them in isolation as they just subside into an indiscriminate mass of stuff.”
By placing the object in the gallery, it is removed from the real world, isolated in the uncluttered space of the white cube and held up for inspection by the museum’s institutional tweezers. There viewers can see it for the very first time, see it as it really is, and that experience often transforms their vision of it into something far more positive.
Draadtrek (2015) is a drawing in orange painted steel wire that extends into three dimensions, becoming increasingly dense and compressed as its lines move toward their own center of gravity. “I love to bend metal around my body so that it assumes my shape and identity, and that is how I turned the wire into a tense, sinuous entanglement like a raveled ball of wool,” explains Coleman.
Nailed (2015) a constellation of 17 nails hammered into the wall, and standing out at an angle of 90 degrees, reverses the usual direction of sculpture and protrudes from the wall, rather than rising from the floor. The cluster consists of found objects that have rusted into exquisite shades of dusky orange browns, and the patina testifies to a mysterious unknown history. Nailed is scaled down to diminutive maquette-like dimensions, but the function which so perfectly dictates the form, could express itself on any scale.
In Twig V (2015) an antiquated, intricate miniature compass supports a piece of wire in a tender embrace allowing it the freedom to move and respond to the breeze. Like the wayward odysseys seen in Draadtrek it revolts against the fixity of Catlin and de Wet’s works, and instead relies on the grace of movement, minimal as it may be.
Gail Catlin’s work is self-portraiture and inspired by her traumatic past. If one aspect of her oeuvre is an exploration of the feminine condition, the other is her exposure to the tribal art of five continents. Her sculpture is so wildly idiosyncratic, so promiscuously eclectic that it is impossible to trace Clarissa, Lucy, Camilla and Peter’s art historical genealogy. Catlin’s sculptures are completely timeless works of pure primitivist inspiration, but whether African, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, Inuit or Amerindian, or a mélange of all five, is impossible to determine.
The four sculptures resonate a hoary, primordial monumentality and totemic presence. They are both ancient and modern. Her chthonian female bronzes are generic and devoid of personal identity, and they affirm the traditional equation between women and nature, presenting the former as essentially sexual and maternal beings emblematic of creation, earth and its bounty.
All Catlin’s sculpted women are of a flagrantly earthy carnality – rudely naked, rather than decorously nude. They are primal forces of nature, elemental earth goddesses. Lucy (2015), for example, stands on tiptoe with her legs parted in a wide and distinctly unladylike stance. Her breasts are prominent, her nipples stiff with arousal, and if she dropped to her knees to fellate the viewer, he would be gratified, but not surprised. Catlin’s Expressionist allegiances emerge in the sheer gestural energy she lavishes upon her bronzes, which achieve a raunchy sexual immediacy unique in the national canon. Exactly the same applies to Peter with his gently swelling member.