Penny Siopis

Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

How_do_I_love_thee-cmyk_copy.jpg

How Do I Love Thee?, 2011, ink  and glue on canvas, 2 × 1.3 m

How Do I Love Thee?, 2011, ink and glue on canvas, 2 × 1.3 m

During a preview of her survey exhibition, ‘Time and Again’ – a chronological survey spanning 35 years of painting, film and installation elegantly installed across five rooms at the National Gallery in Cape Town – Penny Siopis invoked Walter Benjamin, in particular his now-liturgical description of history as a ‘single catastrophe’ where the wreckage keeps on piling up. Siopis, an unabashed historical materialist whose work is marked by its fidelity to the figure and documentary impulse, was standing in front of an installation titled Charmed Lives (2014). Previously shown as a floor-based piece, the new vertical display includes cast-off domestic trinkets, military objects, security paraphernalia and clothing drawn from the artist’s extensive archive of things.

Siopis’s invocation of Benjamin, who wrote about ‘triumphal’ displays and their nexus to ‘horror’ and ‘barbarism’, was not simply meant to clarify the installation. Displayed a few paces from where the artist stood was Melancholia (1986), a lavish banquet scene that, along with William Kentridge’s mid-1980s drawings and prints, has come to define the fin de siècle character of South Africa’s lapsed white republic. But let’s ignore Benjamin for a moment in favour of one his more enigmatic interpreters. There is a muckraking body of local knowledge that takes common cause with Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig’s assertion, from his 2006 essay ‘What colour is the sacred?’, that ‘colour amounts to crime’, an excessive property that prompts ‘fear and desire’ in viewers and arguments over ‘truth and deceit’. Melancholia, a gaudy atrocity typical of the politically inclined Neo-expressionism once fashionable amongst local painters, certainly runs contrary to the muted hues of Kentridge’s work, for instance, but it is equally canonical.

Late into his wandering essay, Taussig turns his attention to Marcel Proust, who himself was pre-occupied with Johannes Vermeer. ‘Style’, offers Taussig, ‘is to the writer what colour is to the painter.’ Siopis’s survey is a cornucopia of colour: mostly exhausted greens, flagrant reds, fleshy pinks and, in Per Kind Permission: Fieldwork (1994), a 17-minute performance video in which the artist’s back becomes the ground for a drawing experiment, white. Colour is an abundant and vital medium for Siopis, and a material signifier. ‘Much of the sense of what I do is embedded in the medium itself,’ she said in 2011.

‘Time and Again’ opens with a selection of the artist’s so-called ‘cake’ paintings, austere sexualized melodramas created using cake-icing nozzles. Presented like anthropological specimens – in rows, on painted depictions of elementary plinths and tables – the dirty pink and stained white globules of oil paint and wax resemble cakes, but also breasts and vaginas. As in Siopis’s subsequent works on canvas, there is revelry and excess or, to put it bluntly, fun, albeit with full awareness of the shadow of morbidity, carnality and violence. Underpinning all of this is a clearly articulated sense that paint is more than simply material: it is also thought.

In past interviews, Siopis has spoken of her interest in Georges Bataille, notably his idea of l’informe (formlessness). ‘Bataille’s informe is an operation, neither theory nor product, and in this I see something of my process,’ she stated in 2009. Her painting is, in many ways, an extended conversation with formlessness, its necessity but also its inoperability as an end goal for the medium. ‘Time and Again’ charts her recurring return to the stability of the figure. It memorably includes a selection of her humanoid ‘Pinky Pinky’ figures, so named for an imaginary sexual predator that Siopis gave form to between 2002 and 2004, which she based on interviews with schoolgirls. The ghost of Sigmund Freud and his panegyrics on feminine sexuality are a recurring theme in the artist’s work. The survey also includes examples of her recent oil, ink and glue paintings, in which the figure is subordinated – but not forsaken – to process. Migrants (2008), a fire-red and smoky-white explosion of congealed paint and glue made shortly after the 2008 xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg, is typical of her current gestural practice.

During the late 1980s, responding to the legislated ‘state of emergency’ in South Africa, Siopis committed herself fully to the human figure. Patience on a Monument: ‘A History Painting’ (1988), an oil and collage study of a female anti-hero seated on a mound of debris peeling a lemon, is her best known work from this period. It is also a painting laden with the infrastructure of theory. Her short films, most of them impressionistic pieces composed from found amateur footage and directed at elliptically narrating a historical incident – the murder of a nun and assassination of a politician – do the same thing, only less fixedly. ‘Time and Again’ gorgeously lays bare the multiple repetitions at the core of Siopis’s practice. It reveals as much as it affirms an artist driven by the relentless compulsion to remake and redo, and by so doing constantly discover something new.

Sean O’Toole is a journalist in Cape Town, South Africa. He edits Art South Africa.

Issue 169

First published in Issue 169

March 2015

Most Read

Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden
From a short history of plagiarism to Trisha Brown's walk: what to read this weekend
Q. What is art for? A. To tell us where we are.
The work of filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins on the occasion of his inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial film...
Trisha Brown has died, aged 80; two new appointments at London’s ICA; controversy at the Whitney
A round-up of the best shows to see in the city ahead of this week’s Art Basel Hong Kong
How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-...
Charlie Fox on a new translation of Hervé Guibert's chronicle of love, lust and drug-addled longing
Three highlights from the New York festival promoting emerging filmmakers
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
A report and the highlights from a show themed around fluidity, flux, botany and the subterranean
From growing protests over the gentrification of Boyle Heights to Schimmel leaving Hauser & Wirth, the latest from...
kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Mexico
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland
The body is a troubled thing ...
Sir Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84; finalists for Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 announced

From the Women's Strike to a march that cancels itself out: what to read this weekend
The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and...
With the reissue of their eponymous debut album, revisiting the career of legendary Berlin art project / punk band Die...
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil 

Tramway, Glasgow, UK
A work by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez
Munich’s Haus der Kunst embroiled in Scientology scandal; Martín Ramírez to inaugurate the new ICA LA
If politics today obsesses over the policing of borders, art in France is enacting multiple crossings
A new video installation from Richard Mosse investigates the refugee crisis
Gustav Metzger has died aged 90; director of the Met resigns
What draws us to certain stories, and why do we retell them? 
It’s time that the extraordinary life and work of Anya Berger was acknowledged

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Nov - Dec 2016

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017