Musings and Manifestos

“There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.”

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The works Manifesto (I and II) were created in June and July of 2018 for the FNB Joburg Art Fair, where they were exhibited with Village Unhu. They were re-shown at Gallery Delta in the exhibition State of Mind (November 2019). At the end of what has been one of the most difficult years of our post-independent history (there are a few to choose from…), I thought it was appropriate to write a post about these two pieces and think about the interim time between their origin and the present. I spend a lot of time discussing and analysing the work of other artists with my pupils, and a lot of time writing statements about my own work, and although the processes are similar, the language and phrasing is different. Looking from inside is not the same as from the outside; it is different finding meaning from that viewpoint. I imagined discussing the work with my pupils, and thinking of it as another artist’s. I thought they would surely be able to find some meaning. After all, they have been well taught.

I would remind them of course, that meaning is not contained within an artwork like some coded message – that indeed, the spectator brings meaning to the work, it is a collision of their own thoughts, their own ideas, their own context, and the artwork.

I would begin by discussing the title, Manifesto. They would respond, noting that the word typically refers to a document expressing ideals and aims. The form of these works, I would observe, unstretched canvas and scroll-like, echoes this idea, something that can be rolled, transported and is documental in nature. I would ask my pupils to note the date that they were created and place them in the context of that time, understanding that is essential to thinking about any piece of work. I would ask them to suggest how they might find a manifesto at that point in time, to what might it refer, and in which case, how might these works be read? They are clever, my pupils, and would surely posit numerous ideas and starting points which could be discussed – many, I think would correspond with my own observations.

“Manifesto I”, 2018. Oil, Paper, Soil and Wire on Canvas. 140 x 100cm. (Photograph, David Brazier).

There is both a warmth and a darkness about the works, someone would note, and they are both characterised by a regular grid like structure. Another may add that within Manifesto I, the horizontal structure is created with barbed wire, mostly painted red. I may add to that, pointing out that Shaw employs and refers often to wire and fences. We would pause there for a while and discuss the attributes of those elements – boundaries, divisions, markings. Many are simple, practical structures that mark agreed boundaries. Others may suggest containment, violence and entrapment – we would discuss the nature of wire and the symbolic references that it might contain.  We might ask why these layers of fence, of barbed wire fence, form the structure of this work.

I always find it rewarding that when you stop them – the pupils – at a work in a gallery, and begin a discussion, they get deeply involved and begin to look and think carefully, and many are not only highly intelligent, but insightful too. But it takes the actual stopping of them to make them look. Like all of us, they are flooded with imagery every moment of their lives, and seldom stop to think about these images and others that may hold considerably more than they think. One would definitely notice the fact that the wire is painted red. Not necessarily significant, but I would judge their mood – if they were focused, I would suggest that it is possible that the work could be read in conjunction with Red Fence (2017). They wouldn’t necessarily know that work, but with technology it could be brought to the lesson instantly. What is unusual about Red Fence, I would point outis the manner in which it is dated; day, month, year – in contrast to every other Shaw work which is dated simply by year. They would latch on to that date – many of them have photographs (previously unimagined images which proliferate their timelines). “It is a mark”, they might conclude, “a mark of an ending – and a beginning”. Connecting these aspects, it’s possible that they may conclude that the red wire of the work Manifesto I could be significant, in that it refers to a specific point, or past ideologies, or histories of successes or failures and the derailing of ideologies.

They would observe that the structures of Manifesto I are less uniformed than the other work – the vertical lines of soil allow for more movement along these axis, and how there seemed to be seepage of paint under and inside the soil ridges. I would hope to extend their thinking about this and would ask them to talk about the way in which the work had been created, look at the materials, – think how it was created and about the significance of these. One might describe the surface as being created partially with elements of tissue – stretched extremely tightly, skin-like – very visibly fragile. In comparison to the second work, this has more life, there is a rawness and in parts where the skin-like surface has been ripped, there are visual references to a rawness, red, almost blood-like interior – quite obvious I might interject, but possibly so –  in parts they might add, there has been an ebb, wounds unhealed, scars unformed – histories of violence. These would be good observations, connecting the visual and visceral elements of the work to the framework they may have originally suggested. I would compliment them – I hope they would feel my investment in reading the work. I find they get really “in to it” when they realise that they are not simply making stuff up, but are finding meanings and value in this world of visual art.

“Manifesto II”, 2018. Oil, Paper, Soil and Wire on Canvas. 140 x 100cm. (Photograph, David Brazier).

We would move on perhaps – time is always short. The second work, Manifesto II has a more defined grid-like structure, rough squarish shapes bounded by mud. “Shaw has often referred to his use of mud – in many instances it goes beyond visual and symbolic references and becomes simply what it is; a part of the land” – they would have picked this out of our earlier discussion about materials and meaning – they would have had a chance to glance through some of the links when we brought the other work into the lesson. It might be possible to read this piece as a type of calendar, each square referring to a metaphorical event, or time? That would be an interesting interpretation, I would think – I might add that in this regard, the work becomes a record over a period of time – not necessarily the land, but perhaps the structures imposed upon it? – blackened, burnt, fragmented, decayed – remnants of the past contained in a work outlining the future. I might ask them to verbalise a sense of the work – “The light is old, reddened, tired, containing the ashes and embers of something that once was. The surface has less of the life of the first work, it has been rendered brittle, dried, flaking. As it peels, it reveals layer and layer of the same. As much as it is an empty vision of the future, it is the record of a broken past. It is not a work that breathes life, it is a work that records a history of decay and death, and a work that predicts more of the same”, they may suggest.

There is never enough time at the galleries, or in the lessons. If a discussion began like that, it would be a good starting point. It is obvious that that there is not a single possible interpretation, but that their ideas are sound, and that they can be investigated much deeper – there is so much more to this reading. And I would go on; I would re-emphasise that an artwork is not a dead thing, it lives and evolves with us and our time. It is not enough to see it as a static thing. What now of our time? What of the period between these works origin and the present? What water has flowed under the bridge? How should we mark those that have died? How are we to understand the silence, and where have our jesters gone? Where is the music? What should we make of the literal and metaphorical darkness that descends on our land, hour after hour, day after day? How now, do we see this manifesto?

“But Sir,…”, one might say: “We noticed there was both a darkness and a warmth, what should we make of that?” “And look at the soil – the literal element, the land worked into the piece – some of it is stained and burnt, some of it bloody but though small, there are parts untainted, unstained, that are rich, vibrant and contain life. There are remnants unbroken, there are seeds. Though it is an ocean of despair, there is hope.”

There is always hope.

Greg Shaw,

31 December 2019.

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