1993

Seeing through the Body

Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.

Major solo exhibition comprising 16 paintings.

In this exhibition, I use an embodied approach to painting practice to subvert the privileging of vision over touch underpinning western historical painting traditions. The optical emphasis in these genres is, arguably, achieved through privileging of the gaze (an objectifying, distanced, cerebral form of looking implicating control and possession,and which gives authority and power to the viewing I/eye); totalisation (unity) and mastery of medium (erasure of indexical traces such as brushmarks).

Here, the visual language and imagery of the 17th-century Dutch still-life tradition is used asa reference point for its own dissolution. I employ the female body as a site of political intervention: a means of rupturing the smooth surfaces and seamlessly constructed verisimilitude of illusionistic painting traditions. Embodied practice is used as a form of transgressive language to disrupt the homogenous, naturalising structure of patriarchal, phallogocentric discourses, in which the ‘I’ is positioned as the rational, unitary, autonomous Cartesian subject.

Patriarchal conventions are subverted by use of strategies of embodiment associated with feminist modes of production. These include tactile engagement with the medium; blurring of boundaries between figure and ground; indeterminacy between surface and depth; fragmentation; layering; formlessness; repetition and dispersal. They are combined with use of materials historically associated with femininity (such as ribbons and lace) and excessive detail and decoration.

Definitive, singular, stable or totalising readings of the work are discouraged by foregrounding qualities of open-endedness, fluidity, heterogeneity and excess. The smooth surfaces of illusionistically painted Dutch still-life objects are built up to three-dimensions using a profusion of actual natural objects (crayfish shells; dried fruit skins); plastic imitations of these (fruit, flowers, fish); actual objects (mirrors, boxes) and simulacra (self-constructed replicas) that ‘spill’ out of the pictorial frame into the viewer’s bodily space. Such violation of spatial boundaries may encourage a partial, fragmented form of looking or intimate, bodily engagement with the work. In their assertion of abjection, the paintings traverse boundaries between attraction and repulsion; possibly inducing conflicting responses of fascination and disgust.