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Off the Wall Exhibition

by Elizabeth Burroughts

The life which is not examined is not worth living.– Plato

Joni Brenner looks at my daughter and puts the broom into the pan of colours she has made up. With the broom head poised above the paper, she scrutinises the child’s face and then makes large, quick sweeps on the piece of paper that fills the lounge floor. Broom back in the paint. Another intense look. Broom caressing the paper. The colours fuse, creating gradations I could not have dreamed of. The morning remains luminous with thoughts: the dynamic energy of the making process, its scale, its swiftness, its deftness, its unexpected playfulness.

Playfulness - an element attested even in the title of this show, Off the wall, and a feature of that memorable morning - grew stronger as the show coalesced. It developed through the constructive and exciting partnership between Joni Brenner and Eddy Krecek, the genius who variously framed and boxed the works. The lightness continued when it came to the naming of the works – Wallflower, Seventy centimetres off the wall, the laconic Black box, and Stomacher. Even Irresolute: Wall-painting is a light-hearted reference to the fact that this work took forever to get finished - and that Joni could never decide whether it was finished or not. What captivated me as an interested observer, was to see the emergence of playfulness as a generative force within the process. There was nothing programmatic about its presence in the show - it had not been determined as the themebefore the putting of the show together got seriously underway. But, once its presence had been detected, playful slipperiness consciously helped to shape the exhibition. 


In one of his brilliant and provocative collection essays in Metamagical themas: questing for the essence of mind and pattern, Douglas Hofstadter argues that the source of creativity lies in the fact that concepts have a way of ‘slipping’ from one into another. In other words, new ideas are never without precedent, but emerge as variations on pre-existing themes. Delacroix was surely making the same point in a different way when he wrote:

What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but the obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.

What is implicit in both Hofstadter’s writing and the quotation from Delacroix is the fact that creative effort draws the person into a dialogue with the existent work and thoughts of other creative people, some of whom may be long dead! For me, these two ideas have helped me to make sense of the creative process as it has unfurled into the present exhibition: the slippage that transforms one idea into another – and the understanding that some form of dialogue is intrinsic to the creative process.

The source for some of the preoccupations that have given rise to variations in the present exhibition is the time that Joni spent in Paris in 1996 - '97 and her return to Johannesburg: the use of watercolour, a medium previously resisted, because the thought of lugging back semi-dry oil-paintings was unappealing; the interest in the effect that a change of light has on an image - a result of fixing images onto her studio window at the Cité; the passion for the impact that display has on works. Her visits to museums in Paris consumed not only the objects that she viewed, but also highlighted for her the fact that the presentation of objects materially altered her perception of the things she was looking at. The watercolours from Paris were uniformly small - a little smaller perhaps than the scale of the works that she had been doing before she left. On her return, it was at the suggestion of a friend that she took one of the Paris watercolours and photocopied it on gigantic scale: the basis for Irresolute: Wall-painting, which has been worked on, over and through that enlargement.


All these preoccupations have been areas for slippage - sites for experiment and joyful discovery: the slipping from small to very large and back to intimacy again is just one aspect that has been explored. Likewise the sliding between watercolour and oil - and all the other sundry ingredients that have gone into these works. Consider the shifts from thin veils of colour to the weighty oils - two and a half kilograms of it in Seventy centimetres off the wall! Look at the inscrutable Blackbox, and compare it with Parting the veil 1 - 4.  Finally, the artist’s gaze has moved from an almost exclusive fascination with the face to other parts of the body: the torso, the belly, and, again, the back of the head. All these dimensions contribute to the variety of Brenner’s work. 

In addition to the experimentation in the works themselves, a great deal of daring has gone into the presentation of the works. Indeed, Brenner undoubtedly regards the presentation of the work as an integral part of the work itself. The mental image of the light boxes for Parting the veil 1 - 4 required the expertise of a number of people, complex electrickery and many layers of duco to produce the sheerness of effect that she had envisaged. The monumental mounting of Irresolute: Wall-painting, brings the work literally off the wall. Its asymmetry is a deliberate ploy to unsettle the viewer into engaging with the piece. The grey cushion and perspex box which set Stomacher off, were chosen because they would provide a setting fit for a jewel - a stomach ornament, an ornamental stomach.  The other belly, pushed out from the wall on a titanium-white bar, is something of an in-your-stomach experience for the viewer. Even a first glimpse of the exhibition will leave viewers in no doubt that their expectations are being played with. The works are daring - and hungry for a matching boldness of spirit on the part of the viewer.

This issue of response - of desire for response - brings me to another aspect of Joni Brenner’s making process. Unlike the common stereotype of an artist’s work as a solitary struggle, her work often is the result of intense bouts of work interspersed with discussions about the work, which then lead to a new round of work on the piece. The final work, then, emerges not just from her own interaction with it, but also from social communing about the piece with friends. Some of her works are dialogues not with people, but with other artworks - notably with the sculptures of Rodin, a pattern which began with Brenner’s Miss Fairfax paintings - and which continues in Chip off the old block and Recollect - Reconnect. In both these composite pieces, the transformation of Rodin’s La Pensée into a completely new work - by another artist working in a different time and place, and with different preoccupations - is openly examined since the postcards of the sculpture, which mediated the original for Joni, have become an integral part of the new artworks. (Her only regret is losing the postcards that she has loved so much and so long!)


In each of these works, the way of presenting the sundry bits provides unification: the shelf, which underlines all the separate pieces, causes the viewer to read them together and, for that reason, to seek connections: how does this little post-card sized sculpture connect with Rodin’s sculpture? And why? For me, these works have a particular interest: they reveal the slippage from the three-dimensional Rodin sculptures, via two-dimensional photographs (views of the work taken by different people at different times), back into voluptuous painting/sculptures. They openly examine the fact that creativity results from responding to the creative impulses of others – making is not out of nothing, but as a result of concentrated dialogue.

This social aspect of the work’s creation is, in a sense, another way in which Brenner is exploring the issues and concerns which emerged from the portraits (both sculptures and paintings) which she did for her masters studies. Her masters exhibition saw her moving away from fairly literal likenesses of her sitters to a much more subjective engagement - attempts to do away with the distinction between what is ‘out there’ and ‘in here’. In this exhibition, the talking side of making the work has highlighted, for me - the writer - at least, how much these works are social constructions, but perhaps in a much more primary way than is sometimes intended by that phrase. 

It would be an omission to focus exclusively on the playful qualities of the work, and not to acknowledge that the show is also saturated with mortality. The use of wax as a medium relates directly to the encaustic used in the extraordinary Fayum mummy portraits, and in Irresolute: Wall-painting gives rise to its deathly pallor. Irresolute: Wall-painting, like some of Brenner’s earlier works, suggest the imprint of a face on a cloth rather than the face itself - rather like the negative image preserved on the Turin shroud. In Unspeaking, the watercolour from which Irresolute was enlarged, the putrefying greens and bruised purples suggest the onset of decay despite the authority of the brush marks. The same could easily be said of Wall-painter 2.  The face in Unnamed seems more to have the repose of death than the animation of life. The bellies, which are the very seat of life, are voluptuous but verge on the overblown, the going to seed. The dark images, entombed in their Black box, are sombre, funereal even. 

Why should such a tension emerge from the show? The rendering of an image, particularly of a human likeness, attempts to fix the person’s features at a particular moment in time - an act of embalming or mummification, since the person’s actual body nevertheless remains subject to the effects of time.  Admittedly the created object is also at the mercy of decay but generally of a much slower kind. But the paradox is inescapable. So, inevitably, portraits in particular embody a stasis which is only possible out of life or beyond it. Play, which is in effect children’s enjoyable but serviceable preparation for life, too, has its darker counterpart in ‘deep play’ - Russian roulette,  playing ‘chicken’, perhaps even bungi-jumping, where for a moment the jumper contemplates the possibility of his or her death.  Is it possible for artists - not the folk who dabble in the decorative shallows - to play without having to plumb the deep opposites of creation/destruction and their human reflexes as life and death?  Is it at all possible to celebrate the value of life without simultaneous acknowledgement of the ever-present possibility of its end? 

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