DARK DESIGNS: JONI BRENNER
Infra Red – The Gertrude Posel Gallery, October 2002
by David Bunn
Many of you will know Seamus Heaney’s lyrical descriptions of the tanned, ancient, and beautifully preserved corpses of bog people turned up by the peasants and peat diggers of early twentieth-century Europe. One of these poems, “The Grauballe Man,”begins like this:
As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep
the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel
Like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.
His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.
There are no specific allusions in Joni Brenner’s work to poems like these. However, there is something in her fascination with the change of state of matter, and of identity as a Heraclitean whirl which representation preserves only momentarily (mummifying one moment in a vastly changing flow), that reminds me very powerfully of the Irish poet.
Red Being, Red Becoming
Like Lucifer and his angels, Joni Brenner has a passionate commitment to dark designs, and to those realms and processes in which that which seemed solid is seen to melt, and in which the thin red current of becoming crusts into the dark scab of being.
Infra-Red is a quietly extraordinary exhibition, marking the mature complexity of an artist who, over the years, has produced a series of fine meditations on portraiture, abstraction, and form. For Joni Brenner, the face has always been a major premise in a complicated argument about subjectivity. From her Masters thesis on portraiture, to the revolutionary Alliance Francaise exhibition that first announced her quarrel with that genre, she has been interested in the limits of facial representation, pursuing the most abstracted fragments of the portrait in identity photographs, blurred snapshots, and, most notoriously, full studies of the back of the head.
In her work over the past two years, Joni Brenner introduced a new fixation: an obsession with the curious properties of the colour red, always thickly rendered, whether in a thick, scarlet impasto, or oil and iron filings over billowing plaster. I remember marvelling at those first flushed portraits, with their propositions rendered in garnet, cinnabar, and carnelian. This exhibition, Infra-Red, takes some of those debates to an entirely different conclusion, and presents a series of finely wrought philosophical explorations.
Red, in this new visual syntax, stands for two states of being, and two orders of time. First, there is the deep crimson, arterial undercurrent beneath the skin, emblematised by blood, or references to the insistent upwelling of lava from an invisible core. This bright river of red is also metaphorically likened, in many of the paintings, to unconscious underlying principles, including the Unconscious itself and affect. In Pyroclastic, a highly abstracted portrait in oil and metal shavings, mounted on a flat glass, cinnabar field, and in Red Deep, there is a dialectic between dark representational surfaces and hints of bright, glinting, scarlet wounds beneath. In other words, in many of these works, complicatedly deep paint surfaces, often over sculpted plaster forms, give the appearance of two orders of time: a cooling ash field, or the newly formed crust on pillow lava, allows glimpses of arterial flow beneath.
Another way of putting this is to say that the highly abstracted, blurred or coagulated portrait, may be thought of as a brief moment within a larger, dynamic state. Thus, instead of the conventional understanding that portraiture is the act of rendering the peculiar, essential subjectivity of a sitter, it might instead be seen as a pose, a temporary formulation of identity for another.Viewed in this manner, the act of portraiture is analogous to all those moments in which identity constitutes itself self-consciously within the field of representation. For Sartre, in a comparable argument, identity is formed around the idea that its being is always conditional on the recognising look of another:
It is in and through the revelation of my being-as-object for the Other that
I must be able to be referred back to my permanent possibility of being seen
by the Other. It is in and through the revelation of my being-as-object for
the Other that I must be able to apprehend the presence of his being-as-
subject (Being and Nothingness 256).
While Joni Brenner’s red portraits allude to the transformation of fluid states, these processes are associated with the thickening of particular forms of being into self-conscious representational acts, which are themselves always partial.
The insistence on red as a dark note beneath present understanding has several interesting additional consequences. First, it is introspective and inward referring, and we are never sure whether a glowing brushstroke is the edge of an ember, or the glimpse of a wound’s interior. Red, too, as infra-red, becomes a medium through which other colours are enhanced and transformed. In the various paired paintings, like Posts, the aura of the one colour spills across another, like the raking, interrogative microwave lights of electronic devices. (Such examples remind us of the notoriously unstable and changeable nature of the colour, as those seeking to fix and formulate red dyes and glazes have always found to their cost.)
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the head is a far less popular subject of art making than it ever was before. For over a century, western philosophy has been evolving a theory of embodied knowledge, and this “decapitation”of meaning received inspiration from French existential phenomenology, and from Lacanian psychoanalysis. It has its popular conclusion in the various cyborg phantasies of advertising and music video art, and the dull, thick set Schwartzeneggers (condoms stuffed with walnuts, in the irreverent joke) of the contemporary health club. It is against this tendency towards embodied consciousness that Brenner works: for her, the face is still a field that commands most attention. It is consciousness written in the face, and the face as a minimal sign–seen in moments of partial recognition, and offhand glances--that still preoccupies her. The body, when it is present, is figured as a kind of technical support for the head, nothing more. In the exquisite white Stele, and in the Posts duo, a highly abstracted zone of activity, signifying consciousness and its busy transactions, is set at head height, against a torso-sized ground, which is also reminiscent of body boards, grave markers, and cool, asexual plinths.
Fragments and Intertexts
If Brenner’s portraits are provisional and fragmentary, they are also situated within a larger philosophical interest in the idea of the museum fragment. Pure white and black works like Mark, Idea, and Zoltan Kaparthy, are themselves like museum fragments of glyphs, placed in a different syntax. In this manner, the memory of a fragment of a face is made equivalent to other broken pieces and part objects in a museological archive.
Concentrating on the fragment, and the elliptical, partial portrait, Brenner causes the gallery to approach the condition of the museum, and representation approximates collecting. This effect is sharply exaggerated because of her extraordinary attention to supports and display contexts
Flat technical surfaces of painted supawood produce a sharp ground for the more mobile, sculpted and painted surfaces, as we have seen. The perfectly wrought plexiglass, brushed steel, or painted glass surrounds are a rhythmical and geometrical counterpoint to the complex oil, plasticine, or plaster surfaces, rather like the way in which a series of Donald Judd cubes imparts a minimalist simplicity to any busy exhibition space. These same clinical and sharp-edged frames help also to organise the light that falls on the central image, casting complex theatrical shadows. Moreover, the paired pieces such as Opaque Repose 1 and 2, and Fayoum 2002, allude to museum display practices of another sort. Waxy cast surfaces are lit from low angles, like specimens in cases. Wax moulding and waxy exudations are also reminiscent of the museum’s association with the business of deathly preservation: whether in that specialised curatorial form of portraiture associated with mummy displays or encaustic coffin likenesses, or in the collecting of casts, shells, moulds, and cire perdue traces, the museum has a morbid fascination with the body’s last impress.
The museum-exhibition conflation makes possible an additional domain of intertextual referencing: to other quotations and fragments in a larger historical archive, for instance. In And Agamemnon…?, Heinrich Schliemann is recalled. We remember that most famous, most fanatical moment when Schliemann–in a gesture later to be repeated by Howard Carter -- lifts up the repoussé gold Mycenaean death mask that he believes to be from the house of Atreus. Here unrecognisably distorted in Joni Brenner’s white portrait, the plaster replica of that mask recalls the triumph of the discovery moment, when the explorer felt that the physiognomic outlines of the heroes of the House of Atreus were a tactile presence. Another famously severed head is that of Yorick, playfully signified as a cast plasticine fist or anamorphic skull, exquisitely mounted in a case like a museum vitrine. A fragmentary remainder of Rodin’s Balzac is bathetically recalled in Golden Boy Balzac. So too in Presley and Zoltan Karpathy, secret allusions and lines of song merge with references to characters from popular culture, and are given expressive, experimental form. The beautiful black work Presley reduces the portrait to a highly abstracted form of cross hatching, which is at the same time the glistening waves of Elvis’s brillianteened hair, or a vinyl LP held at varying angles, in a series of quick gestures, against the light.
Joni Brenner is a passionate educator, much valued in the Wits School of Arts for her innovative teaching and learning practices. It is worth noting that this exhibition will be subject to the same sorts of passionate dissemination as her other forms of teaching. Working with schools in Braamfontein, Soweto, Olifantsvlei, and elsewhere, she plans to bring multiple groups of up to fifty learners of various ages into workshops involving practical activities on the subject of portraiture. A printed guide to the show is being produced, and this will double as a workbook, allowing the example of the show to spread further and further. For younger children, there will be magical and affirming exercises that have them tracing the autobiographical outlines of faces on mirrors; for older students, the same exercise enables a complex discussion about representation, identity, and perspectival conventions.
In the end, though, this is an unusually complex exhibition with a demanding philosophical interrogation of its subject. Red is a medium for understanding darkness of thought and being, and yet there is both lightheartedness and poignancy in the use of limited colours red, black, and white. In the end, too, Heaney finds an historical poignancy in the secret of the Grauballe man’s death, and he returns to the example of the facial features. The tanned and creosoted body is transformed into a semi-precious stone. As a trick of mummification, in the neck of the long dead peasant, there is a memory of the life giving blood that courses beneath all our present acts:
The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat
that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens to a dark
Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose.
It is precisely this kind of dark crimson, humanising vulnerability that Infra-red celebrates.