The origins of my art -1953 -1983
“What about what if is as or is is”
When asked to describe the origins of my art, my objectives as an art practitioner, I have difficulty in locating myself stylistically because of my non-systematic, non-formulaic approach to making art.
If I try to pinpoint the essential connecting strands of my artwork over the years, I am inevitably drawn back to the time of my political awakening; when I became culturally and ideologically alert to myself and to the world around me. My conscious responses to this awareness constitute the driving force in my work and underpin much of what I have expressed.
The process of becoming aware started while I was growing up in the racially charged atmosphere of Apartheid South Africa. I was a product of an inter-faith marriage. My mother was a committed Methodist who preached the dictates of ‘hellfire and brimstone’ of the Old Testament, while my father was a non-practising Jew. The painting depicted on the cover (Mischling, meaning mongrel in German) represents an eloquent statement on the resolution of my dual religious origins. In the board game of life, the heritage of the Christian mother (hot cross bun) dominates that of the Jewish father (matzos), making me not quite (or at all) Jewish. The use of humour as an effective means of communication (derived from my father’s family) has been consciously incorporated in much of my repertory as an effective form of commentary. Mischling itself is both dark commentary and a lighthearted humorous reflection on my genealogical origins.
This strange religious admixture facilitated the development of my questioning nature. As a boy I was also exceptionally myopic and chronically asthmatic. Instead of playing sport, I gravitated to chess to fulfil my adversarial needs, and towards history and reading as a theoretical surrogate for the physical things I was unable to do. My imagination thrived. For a myopic, weedy, asthmatic boy to survive and achieve in (South African) society I needed to develop a cunning. I adopted theoretical subterfuges and often assumed alternating roles. I have always been enthralled by the metaphor of the chameleon and the notion of the layering of meaning has continually featured in my art work. I have also continually experimented with different media and stylistic artistic approaches.
As with most young boys in early adulthood I underwent a crisis of identity and rebelled. As one of the sixties generation who challenged traditional authority, by the age of 15 I had been arrested for attacking a policeman in a riot situation. Two years later at the age of 17, I was conscripted into the armed forces, an experience that was to have a profound effect on me. It was abundantly clear to me that we were no ‘defence force’.
The evolutionary process of my awakening changed pace after my military training. I adopted a politically progressive ideological position, with socialist sympathies. My need to challenge became more of an imperative, but as well as being influenced by progressive thinking, I also sought to challenge and analyse that thinking. My approach to the social issues in South Africa in particular, and to life more generally, was characterised by an intense humanist criticality, an approach that came to influence the form and content of my art.
At the same time, I did not fit in with the dogma of the non-racist Marxist dominated ‘struggle’ against the Apartheid regime. To formally join a cadre of the struggle was too much like adopting a religion, and as with religion, I was more at ease operating alone in the interstices. I preferred to contribute in my own way to the struggle.
I have been exceptionally fortunate in having the opportunity to develop the artistic ability to express and externalise my responses to issues impacting on me. I have always tended to polarize issues, to understand them by framing them in their extreme context or manifestation; after all I was born in the land of ‘black and white’. American activist artist Leon Golub states, “If you want to comprehend a phenomenon, you have to go to the edges or perimeters to where it slips into something else, or where its contradictions or isolation becomes evident.”1 This scrutiny of issues in their extreme form is perhaps the key to accessing my art. Artistic expression has always been a refuge for me, a personal cathartic auto-psychoanalytic tool.
Divergent strands – Origin of my Art
My experience, particularly at undergraduate level, engendered, among other concerns in my art, a preoccupation with my personal sense of alienation. While hard-edged and colour field abstraction dominated the art world, I made illusionistic, non-gratuitous representational images that were easily accessible and which intentionally embodied deeper speculative considerations. (Passages II -1979).
Concurrently, works such as the assemblage (Untitled -1979) referenced the art historic (Cubism & Mondrian) as well as deploying a wry humour. The central object of the work is a ‘found’ piece of linoleum, depicting an assortment of timbers in a grid, a cheap imitation of parquet flooring. The decontextualised floor is thus innately illusionistic. I seated the ‘picture’ in an ornate handsome oval wooden frame, which is actually an old toilet seat. In a somewhat subliminal manner I had the expectation that the viewer’s posterior will somehow recognize the shape (the signifier) and associate it with the crappy linoleum it surrounds (the signified).
Another extensive early preoccupation isolated the structure and substructure of painting itself as subject matter (Untitled – 1979 & 1980). These works were concerned with process and tended to be dry commentaries on the formal elements traditionally used in picture manufacture.
Amongst my research preoccupations at that time, I combined disparate elements to create a flag design (ANC/SA/ANC – 1980),which consisted of an incorporation of the African National Congress colours, both within and surrounding the then South African colours. As a strongly loaded political statement, the inclusion of the ANC colours represented a direct threat to the racist republic. In formal art terms, it was typically abstract & hard- edged but its intention clearly superseded this in its signified social commentary. The image of this work appeared on the front page of the Johannessburg Star Newspaper (26th May 1981) in relation to the “20 year anti-republic demonstrations”. I began to understand and value the impact of making activist art.
In the early eighties, I also started to respond to a number of other social issues. In one instance, I participated in a collaborative work with Carol Gordon (my then wife and partner) on the issue of the co-option of Fine Art images by advertising, specifically by the tobacco industry in South Africa. We ran an anti-tobacco advertisement in a local newspaper – (SASPU National, Vol 2. No.6 August 1981) visually associating Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with a contemporary smoking ‘Giaconda’ – Carol Gordon. This image intentionally parodied the Rembrandt Tobacco Group by claiming sponsorship from the Da Vinci Tobacco Company.
Collaboration with other artists led me to participate in a cross-disciplinary art tableau entitled the “Life and times of Apollinaire”. (1984). Functioning almost as a coda to my mainstream interests, this project afforded me the enjoyable opportunity of simply making a series of art historically referenced works, which had no specific political application. Similarly, a decade later, I created a nostalgic series of camouflaged leopard paintings, which superficially don’t seem to ‘fit in’ with my other work either.
But back in 1983, I began responding to Apartheid. I painted a burning bus in traditional landscape form (Azikwele – we will not ride – 1983). To me, this represented a true picture of the South African landscape at that time and was my response to the nationwide bus boycotts. I had begun a long journey, which culminated in a large body of work dealing with the nature of power in Apartheid South Africa.
My interest in naturalistic representation had become fuelled by the needs of pragmatism in the cause of agitprop art. Didactic in form and politically suffused in content, in the late eighties my work culminated academically in a Master’s degree at Sydney College of the Arts (University of Sydney) and politically in Eight an eight minute documentary which was televised nationwide on SBS. (Vox Populi – June 1990)
September 2003. Victor Gordon
Also read essay: PRETEXT