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Review by Anne Mcilleron

Joni Brenner makes portraits. The preferred way to make a portrait, in 2002, is to take a photo; instant, irrefutable. And amongst the 36 pieces filling the Gertrude Posel Gallery at Wits until November 15th there are in fact two photographic images; but as representatives of the genre as conventionally understood they fail miserably. Two enormous wall panels, almost identical except for that one is in colour, the other black and white, are titled Glance, and show an unremarkable, softly penis-like, rock monolith against clear sky. The other image, Moving, likewise duplicated and outsized, encases in circular form the otherwise unprepossessing stairwell occupying the centre of the gallery. It is a blurred image of face and shoulders in the hues of fire and night; my first thought was of (imagined) San trance dance. The images are deceptive. The first, the huge rock formation, is from any other angle the Sphinx; perversely, Brenner presents to the viewer the back of the head, a cryptic perspective usually reserved for the desert. And the trance dancer in his daylight incarnation is Wilson Mootane, who frequently sits for the artist, shot in her Johannesburg studio.

So we are alerted; issued an invitation to reconsider. Defying expectation, these photos – whilst in scale and medium unrepresentative of Brenner’s work – provide an index to her project, which over some years has staged a fervent confrontation with received notions of portraiture, rooted in the artist’s intense frustration with the paucity, even mendacity, of both photographs and traditional claims to portray a person through representations of the face in paint. It is testimony to the obstinacy and passion of that struggle that the work offered here sets forth its argument with compelling elegance, even as it is intense, gritty and playful.

The objects in this show, set on pristine shelves, plinths, or floating just off the wall, take brief pause, suspended in an indeterminate moment between painting and sculpture. In his deftly perceptive catalogue essay, David Bunn proposes that in the physical scale and placing of her work Brenner achieves a kind of recapitation, restoring the face as principal register of consciousness in a culture in which a premise of embodied intelligence has eclipsed heads.  Whilst Brenner centres her attention on heads – the back of the head as frequently as the face – the mesmerising attainment of her work is to exceed both heads and bodies, to find something prior and more essential. Her fluid, sensuous portraits are wrought from earth, wax, stone, sand, iron, glass, steel, oil, wood, pigment. In an alchemy of all this elemental matter, refusing the enticements of surface, Brenner seems to work from the inside, to discover by touch and empathy as much as sight, some preverbal apprehension of the beings she conjures. Lest we should doubt the conviction of Brenner’s abandonment of surface representation, recall that her models are almost always herself or Wilson Mootane; it is in working that the pieces morph into others, assert their own life, identities intuited and found rather than decided. Accordingly, although the pieces in this show are titled for people, concepts, associations, these invariably follow rather than precede the substance, often arriving only in the final stages of presentation; like the allusive wall texts paired to each piece, they playfully deploy an additional register of meanings, rather than being formulated as delimiting concepts in advance. And whilst Brenner’s works frame their propositions in a minimal syntax of red, black and white, with the robust articulation of earth, they present with the extraordinary poise of the ephemeral, or the taut accuracy of dancers.

Finally, if Joni Brenner confesses a fascination with fragments and incompletion, aligning her intentions in portraiture along the axis of the museological archive – an allegiance evident here in her attentive crafting not just of individual pieces but of the entire exhibition space, in strategies of display, in the textual accompaniment to objects – so that, as David Bunn observes, she ‘causes the gallery to approach the condition of the museum, and representation approximates collecting’; then it is her peculiar talent to animate and inspire that archive, so that the gestures she assembles transcend their fragmented material condition to articulate in an open moment, a moment of becoming. And it is in this insistent, passionate crafting that Joni Brenner folds us silently into time and into space, into death and life.


Published in Art South Africa, vol 01, issue 02, summer 2002


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