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Sandton Civic Gallery, May 1999

Opening speech by Karel Nel

The image on the poster for the present exhibition provides a clue to its genesis. The photograph, taken by Brenner in her Johannesburg studio, shows her early fascination with portraiture and with specific examples of Rodin's marble works. Rodin’s sculptures, like Miss Fairfax, hover between an ethereal definition of specifics and a rendering in marble, where parts, uncannily reminiscent of the tactility of modeled clay, are played off against the roughness of hewn rock. 


Brenner could, for a number of years, often be found in front of Miss Fairfax in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, painting and repainting the apparitional image of a woman caught at the height of her beauty, her face revealed and yet concealed as if a silk stocking were stretched over its refined features. A memory emblazoned in my mind's eye is of an 80-year old Miss Fairfax, withered and shriveled, visiting the Johannesburg Art Gallery from Europe, coming face to face with the spectre of her ephemeral beauty fixed in stone.


The conventions of portrait-painting have for centuries attempted to fix features: successive waves of images tell us as much about the sitters as the artists and again as much about the social context and milieu in which they were painted.


Brenner's fascination with portraiture has pushed at - and shifted - defined boundaries. When someone says 'portrait-painting' in South Africa, I immediately think of hard-boiled images of rather self-opinionated people who insist on having control over how they are represented to the world. Brenner's portraits never enter this binary. Her terrain is defined by an uncompromising scanning of the facial terrain of her sitters.


The power of the works resides in the intensity of the dialogue with material, with people and with ideas. They are framed within social and visual constructs that constantly shift the tenor of the viewer's interaction.


Many of the initial works for this exhibition were a series of small watercolours, tentative yet strong; another were a group produced on tracing paper like out-of-focus images that change their presence in the world when placed on window panes, or light boxes.


Many of Brenner's images are fugitive by nature, large vague shapes and intensely worked areas side by side, leading to an instability of perception. Covert gestures co-exist with brusque fluidity; translucency with opaque washes; small details within the large heads painted with enormous vivacity using a broom. Ethereal yet iconic heads waver behind vast sheets of immensely heavy glass - Nile green and orange marks shriek through luminous grey washes.


In Unnamed, the waxy, flesh-like qualities and the seismographic scratchings have a fragile intimacy in which the artist is both agent and voyeur. The tallow-like hues and intensity of the face invoke the encaustic Greco-Egyptian mummy-portraits from Fayoum as extraordinary precedents.


The smaller, dark Bog portraits seem to have had their facial features partially obscured by the sheer tangibility and physicality of the paint - like features simultaneously preserved and radically altered by the action of peat and tannin. And yet the muffled signs of face are exquisitely lit from within the frame, the light raking the surface and throwing the image into gestalt.


Many of the images seem disembodied, as though the intense scrutiny has dissipated the very nature of the person observed. It always seems strange to me that when we are asked to memorise the faces of our children or parents, they are difficult to fix or hold on to, yet we have an extraordinary sensitivity to their presence. In some ways that awareness is a 'sight' which penetrates beyond likeness, and it is this very faculty which is at the heart of Brenner's work. This extreme form of introversion, evident in the scrutiny of self and sitter, is dramatically played off against how the display of the work negotiates its image in the world.


Brenner has always been fascinated by the often difficult relationship between private making and public showing. The Black Box, for example, is archival: housing a series of self-portraits in the shallow drawers of a domestically-scaled chest of drawers, custom-made for the purpose. Like a black box or flight recorder, the drawings in it minutely document  - and enable us to reconstruct - a journey, a personal investigation. This highly personal chest of drawers is placed on a silver high-tech trolley, impersonal and wheeled into a public space.


The dramatically constructed frames in turn, serve as part of the subversion Brenner is testing. The naturalised conventions of, say,  the gold frame of an Impressionist painting state: ‘I'm expensive’ and ‘I'm a hole in the wall’. The deliberate presentation of Brenner's internalised images forefronts them: far from allowing us, the viewers, to look intothe works, they move forward into the viewer's world, the viewer's space, asserting their undeniable physicality. Such is the case with Seventy cm off the wall where 2.5 kilograms of titanium white confronts the viewer on its own terms, defying all neatly encasing, hole-in-the-wall conventions.


The Fayoum portraits, Auguste Rodin, Impressionism, Lucian Freud, Minimalism: all these elements form a complex of allusions. The richly-worked, painterly surfaces that evoke the features of her sitters play off against the Minimalism of the 60s. Its sheer architectural qualities have suffused Brenner's use of stark surfaces and clean volumetric forms. Her use of palpable space leaves one in the uncomfortable position wondering whether one is in the presence of de-humanised expressionism, or humanised minimalism - and one is left to negotiate one's way through the complex visual languages of our time.


Finally, because art is so often seen as esoteric, we need as artists, curators, teachers and museologists to engage the next generation in continuing to explore, to make art accessible, fun and meaningful. Brenner is therefore to be congratulated on the extensive educational projects that she has planned for the coming weeks with over 500 learners from Sandton and from Alexandra. Joni, I congratulate you on your ability as an artist to inspire and to share.

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