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Alliance Francaise, August 1996

Opening speech by Karel Nel

At a time of very divergent art production, of video, installations, photographs and conceptual pieces, it is exhilarating to see serious and deeply investigative painting, side by side and concurrent with the new tide.


Joni Brenner's work is fascinating because it challenges a tradition so old and continuous that its conventions have become naturalised. The tradition I'm talking of, of course, is portrait painting.


All the works around you are essentially portraits. It almost goes without saying that portraits deal with the notions of likeness or recognition to some degree. Traditionally in commissioning a portrait, the artist has been put into a difficult position of pleasing the sitter and/or the patron. The commissions in the past were the prerogative of kings, royalty, nobility, and today generally of politicians and big business.


Brenner disrupts this power flow by choosing not to paint the rich or powerful, but those she finds a direct empathy with, investigating deeply the notions of likeness and recognition beyond the conventions of the optically correct snap-shots which are to be found in most suburban homes. She deals with the ability we all have to recognize a person in other ways: a portrait does not have to be of a face, but could be of the head from behind. We recognize people by the way they walk, talk, the way they stand. In dreams we even recognize people while acknowledging that they don't seem to look as they do when we are in the waking state.


Often when we are asked to recall or describe those really close to us, it is difficult to put into words what they look like. Indeed sometimes it is even difficult to conjure up an accurate mental image of the person as the recognition somehow goes beyond looks.


Brenner's portraits work with this ability of the eye to conjure with the image, finding the likeness, and allowing it to mutate with the deeply varied processes of perception. 


The Peter Hoeg quotation from Miss Smilla's feeling for snow, included by Brenner on  her invitation, gives a glimpse into the nature of this investigation:


In a big city you adopt a particular way of regarding the world. A focused, sporadically selective view. When you scan a desert or an ice-floe, you see with different eyes. You let the details slip out of focus in favour of the whole. This way of seeing reveals a different reality. If you look at someone's face in this manner, it starts to dissolve into a shifting series of masks.


This is not snap-shot vision. Inevitably there is an intersubjectivity in the relationship between the painter and sitter. The work is a blend of the interaction between the two. The intriguing question comes to mind that when viewing a Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe - who does one think of first, Marilyn or Warhol? 


Inevitably portraiture wrestles with identity. Brenner's images are fractured, sumptuous portraits that actively work with the dissolution of outline, the merging of the emotive inner world and the outer world of form. Skin as the barrier between us dissolves and opens into a field of presence.


The eye is constantly challenged to find the image, which is fugitive and constantly in flux. Like the mind that finds images in the clouds, the psyche constantly projects images to grasp at something in the chaos, attempting to construct meaning. 


Likeness is constructed in just such a manner, small fragments recognised and pieced together to create a gestalt. This piecing together gives a clue to the reading of the metaphor of the shelf constructions. With their fragments placed side by side,  the shelves create interactive readings - a visual syntax much like scanning a sentence, underlined in colour almost as a form of punctuation. The shelves and frames are like building-blocks. Their reference to museum display is strategic, highlighting how presentation is directly linked to representation. The broad frames act as buffers between the world of painted representation and the real world outside, dramatic contrasts of luxurious emotive paint abutting sheer mechanical surfaces.


Brenner further pressurises the relationship between sculpture and painting. She paints a series of works from Rodin's sculpture of Miss Fairfax. In the sculptural works, on the other hand, where she fingers her clay in an attempt to grasp likeness, these works become shallow reliefs that are more like 3-D paintings than sculptures. Then, in the painting, the impasto is so pronounced that the paintings move towards a state of sculpture.


Nothing is arbitrary. The archaic allusions to classical fragments play their way through the works. Further allusions come in the use of travertine marble to paint on. The plaster, mask-like works allude to death masks. The loosely attached canvas in Installation VII is shroud-like. The power and the challenge of Joni Brenner's work lies in her ability to use old ways to say new things as well as in her ability to find new ways to say old things. 

May her upcoming Paris sojourn enrich both these ways of dealing with past and future.

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