The Treachery of Images

MagrittePipe

The Belgian surrealist painter, René Magritte, he of the infamous “pipe” painting: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, “This is not a pipe”, in equally obtuse fashion, apparently said to someone asking him to explain what he meant by one of his works, “if could do that I wouldn’t need to paint them”.

 

Now Magritte may have said that, but I have found that in general artists love speaking about their work. I definitely do, but in my defence I love speaking about art, period. With my own I just have more insight into it, which is quite logical, and probably makes the talk more (I have been told this by people who have attended my lectures) heartfelt and passionate…and also informative, I suppose. So I use this in way of introducing the fact that in the past two weeks I have been interviewed twice about my exhibition at the artSPACE Gallery, Prick! Subverting the Stitch.

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Above: Self-portrait 2013-3 am (2015).

The first one, and I was really humbled by this, was by a third year fine arts student from Rhodes University. She had an assignment which required her to review an exhibition and she chose mine! Me, being written about by a university student! An academic interest shown! The kind of thing an academic conceptual artist such as myself lives for! Here are the questions she asked and my answers:

1.) When/how did you start making art? Why do you make art?

I have always loved all the arts and I suppose I was what people called “an arty kid”. Despite this I never really had the confidence to fully commit to it, and as a boy in a tough neighbourhood I was never really encouraged to either. I suppose it was because I grew up in a low to low-middle class suburb and went to an all-boys school where art was not even offered to a matric level. As a result I honestly did not have much exposure to art whilst growing up apart from the odd craft class. I am reminded of something Scarlett Johansson’s character, Vicky or Cristina, I forget which, says in the Woody Allen movie: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).

 

“I just have to come face to face with the fact that I am not talented, you know. I can appreciate and I love music but … It’s sad, really. I feel like I have a lot to express and I’m not gifted.”

 

Awesome movie!

 

Sadly that is how I thought of myself: an art appreciator but never an art participator. As a result I walked around with this huge hole in my life that nothing I did seemed to fill. The truth is that you will always go back to what you love and I would repeatedly do this with art. I ran a décor and interior design company and then eventually ended up in the fashion industry which in turn eventually led to me getting into creating art and then exhibiting. As I acquired skills my confidence grew, and so did my thirst for all that was art, so I decided to go back to university and study art. I did this part-time through UNISA and am at the moment doing my masters through them. I also lecture for them now, mentoring the Kwazulu-Natal students.

 

As for why I create art, for me it is an integral part of who I am. I have a need to create and to communicate, to speak to people, through my visual language. The world can be a pretty grim place and this is because of the human race. Art reminds me that we are capable of more than just taking or destroying, it gives me hope. This is something I want to share with people. When I work on an exhibition I always have this in mind, so my goals are to entertain the viewer but also to educate and inform them.

 

2.) What is your preferred medium and why?

I am a conceptual artist so I tend to choose my medium based on what my theme is. Performance (my body) and embroidery (thread and stitch) appear in a lot of my exhibitions because my work often deals with gender issues. But if I had to select a medium purely based on the enjoyment of using it, it would have to be oil paints. I love the painterly, the joyful feeling of creating form and space on a 2-D surface is an experience like nothing else. Oils have their very own character and personality too, and the more you use them the more they become a part of who you are as an artist. They become friends you converse with or sometimes just hang-out with in your studio and on the canvas.

 

3.) Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone and discovered a whole new genre of art? How did it turn out?

Two words: performance art! Way, way, way out of my comfort zone! I highly recommend every artist try it at least once. It is all about the body (un) comfortable, not only yours but your viewer’s too. For my third year practical requirements at UNISA, as the artist, swany, I explored the nature of my Gaze. I selected five performance artists to focus on: Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), Carolee Schneemann (1939), Mary Beth Edelson (1933), Hannah Wilkes (1940-1993) and Marina Abramovic (1946). Inspired by their work I chose to turn the gaze upon myself in an attempt to experience a little of what these women, and women in general, experience. The work consisted of an installation, visual works, a documented performance and the resultant video, and utilized the five selected feminist performance artists, and my presence as well as the audience to investigate, interrogate and comment on this relationship. I performed the exhibition piece, Gaze (2012), at artSPACE Durban. I shed my hair in it as a form of ritual cleansing and shame/grief/sacrifice before altars of each of the artists I admire.

 

Was it successful? On a personal level, and also as an artist, certainly. I grew tremendously from the experience. I learnt that our body is the very centre of our symbolic universe. It is a tiny model for humankind,  and simultaneously, a metaphor for the larger socio-political body. If we are capable of establishing all these connections in front of an audience, there is hope that they will recognize them in their own bodies. However, it is important to remember that the same thing that makes this possible also proves to be what makes performance art so very dangerous. There is very little remove between artist and audience/viewer. You have no control whatsoever over the audience/viewer. This is the challenge of performance art. This is what makes it so liberating and intoxicating but also what makes it so terrifying and hurtful. Often you get to experience both which I did.

 

From the Gaze exhibition I took what I had learnt and for my honours degree created Proof of Life (2013) which was extremely successful and for which I received distinctions from the university. If you go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esoe8bg3iLI there is a video of this work.

 

 4.) What, in your opinion is the hardest step in creating a masterpiece?

Ha ha, oh my lord! A masterpiece? Convincing yourself that you are capable of creating a masterpiece, I suppose?! Creating it and then convincing others that it is a masterpiece! What I hope you get from that is the one thing which I believe prevents an artist, or anyone for that matter, from creating: a fear of failure. You should never be afraid to fail. Failure means you are doing, it means you are learning, it means you are experiencing. Importantly it means you are in the game! Self-doubt is one of the biggest obstacles an artist faces.

 

5.) What inspires you? What inspired the idea behind Prick! Subverting the Stitch?

I was raised by women, notably my widowed mother, so the role models in my life have always been women. As an artist this remains the same.  I am a pro-feminist man and in my artwork I explore gender issues using embroidery and stitching to deconstruct certain societal perceptions: 1) that it is a craft associated with the feminine and not considered an art form, 2) the manner in which I create it which is associated with the masculine (in a factory, on production lines) as well as the non-creative, reproduction of banal images. Those things are generally at the centre of my work but if I am totally honest I am stimulated by virtually everything. As an artist you tend to see the world, and by “see” I mean “SEE”. In general the average person tends to just look at the world (and I realize I am being a little elitist here but it is what it is) while artists are continually questioning, deconstructing, imagining and re-imagining what they are seeing. I always warn my first year students that their year is going to make them incredibly uncomfortable because they are going to begin to see the world in a completely new way and it will never look the same again. So to return to your question, what inspired “Prick!”?, it was my exploration of embroidery, , challenging the traditional decorative connotations of embroidery and deliberately going against the assumed decorativeness of needle and thread.

 

6.) Is there an artwork that you are most proud of in the exhibition? Why?

Ah, tough question to ask any creative person…or parent for that matter. They are all your children and you love them all in different ways. I suppose if I had to choose one it would be “Merica, Fck Yeah! 2012”. It is probably my most personal piece (more so even then the self-portrait) in the exhibition. It took 3 years to complete and reflects my failed emigration (my green card fell through) to the USA in 2012 to become a full-time artist. Present are images/icons of my childhood saints as well as of my broken dreams. As usual I also question stereotypes and social constructs by using embroidery and stitching and the juxtaposition of images and media.

Below: Merica,  Fck Yeah! 2012 (2015)

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The second interview by an arts journalist was for a regional newspaper. Here are the questions and my answers:

 

  1. What does your work in the exhibition, Prick! Subverting the Stitch represent/symbolise?

The works in this exhibition represent approximately 3 years of experimentations with embroidery, stitching and thread. These explorations of embroidery are also an exploration of gender, and reflect my continued struggle against societal constraints and prejudices. If we consider that masculinities and femininities are constructed by the societies we are part of then our behaviour and perceptions are therefore determined by them. I use specific images and instances from popular culture to illuminate this in an attempt to deconstruct these societal constricts. I also locate myself in this society in this exhibition in a self-portrait holding up a local newspaper. In particular I juxtapose these “pop” images with critical text to make clear the subversive messages they present and the behaviours they re-enforce.

 

  1. Can you tell me a bit more about your work in terms of the mediums you use?

As the title of the exhibition alludes to, my chief medium has been embroidery thread. I am a conceptual artist so I tend to choose my medium based on what my theme or concept is. Performance (my body) and embroidery (thread and stitch) appear in a lot of my exhibitions because my work often deals with gender issues. I challenge the traditional decorative connotations of embroidery deliberately going against the assumed decorativeness of needle and thread. There is a sense of brutal force applied to fabric that often feels like a violation, an attack. The viewer is made aware of the piercing of, the sheer trauma of the process. I achieve this by layering stitches over stitches and juxtapose this with areas where I purposefully leave them out so the fabric shows through, wound-like. I will provide you with examples to illustrate what I mean: my self-portrait work consists of 1200000 stitches (over 1 million), each of my “Playboy” works contains at least 60000 stitches. The sheer volume of stitches adds a weight and presence that the viewer is subconsciously, uncomfortably aware of, like a predator in long grass, sensed but not seen.

 

 

  1. In terms of your creative process, where do you get your ideas from?

I am a pro-feminist man so my ideas/concepts are generally generated by this. I have an intense interest in how we construct gender identities in our societies and how inequalities and subjugation are enforced with, ironically, very little force. We play the roles that society dictates to us. I focus this interest with an immense amount of research. I consider myself an academic conceptual artist therefore research is as important as making. Thus my creative process can almost be considered practise-based research. I am at present busy with my masters in visual arts which will be concerned with these societal constructs so the “Prick!” exhibition can almost be considered a forerunner or a practise run of the exhibition I have to present for that degree. So to get back to the question: the idea is sparked by gender issues and my awareness of them, informed and underpinned by the research I carry out to fully understand them, and then the visual is created through a rigorous making ritual and presented to the viewer in an effort to deconstruct and disrupt perceptions.

 

 

  1. What can audiences expect from attending the exhibition and viewing your work?

I quote Mariska Karasz’s, Adventure in Stitches (1949):  “Free yourself of any traditional concept of what embroidery should be …”

 

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So what do you take from this? Well, when I look at my responses retrospectively I get to see kind of where I am in my career as an artist and that is kind of cool. This is why I enjoy speaking about my work (and yes, it is also narcissistic to a certain extent). Speaking about your work requires you to think critically about it, to review it and to provide your own response to it. This is the gift that the student and the journalist afforded me and this is why I am humbled and grateful when people have the interest and take the time to ask me questions about something I have created. So I always relish the challenge of questions asked about my work. Ask away, dear  viewer, ask away!

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Simple Man

I believe that at heart I am a simple man. I don’t aspire to rule the world or to attain massive wealth or fame or notoriety. In saying that, however, I would really love to become an artist of note and to be able to share my love of art with others. But mostly I would prefer to be left alone. Ironically, despite this, I have often had leadership thrust upon me without my seeking it: school prefect, rugby captain, club captain, corporal. I use these as examples, not to boast, positions I have held but certainly never sought. Not that I won’t step forward and take charge and responsibility of a situation if I see it is necessary, I often do. But the affairs of humanity and its nature often sadden and sicken me, and I find the less I have to do with people the better.

Below: me now in 2015 – sweaty selfie after a Sunday run

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OK, so what has this simple man been up to since last I wrote?

  • I have been re-appointed visual arts and multimedia mentor lecturer for my region which is awesome because I really enjoy working with the students. It also prevents me from isolating myself which is bad for my own artmaking.
  • I have been officially accepted into the masters programme as a registered postgraduate student.
  • I am working on artworks for 3 exhibitions at the moment (more about these soon).

A huge deal was the fact that this past Saturday (Valentine’s Day) I was invited to give a speech at the regional Independent Education Board’s Visual Arts Conference. I spoke about Performance Art to about 40 private school teachers at a school called St Mary’s. Man, what a school! Money is a hell of a thing! To view the benefits of privilege, manifested in the real world, not in shiny cars and baubles but in real old-money-style is really something. How can one do anything but succeed in an environment like that: tradition, wealth, privilege and expectation? As I said what a fantastic school… if you can afford it. Anyway it was a really good experience for me as well as an opportunity to further establish my name out there, in this case as academic.

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An interesting sidebar is that I am “juicing” at the moment. NO, not steroids, but drinking vegetable juices. I was in the States in 2012 for a few months (yes, during the whole sad LA Woman affair) and the crowd I hung with in LA and Florida were all juicers. Especially kale, which is very difficult to find here or is it just me? Anyway when I got back I tried to carry on with it but there were no companies that produce the types of juices I had in the States and the juice machines I tried to use to make my own blew. Finally I have come across Raw Juice Co! They make an awesome product and this week I am trying out their 3-day detox programme. Man, I really was not expecting the cleanse to kick my ass because as a vegetarian I eat really healthily. Yet yesterday, there was my ass, and it was getting itself kicked! The juices carved me out like a canoe! I was really tired by the time I got back from work. Today, however, I feel a little “trippy”, a not all-together” unpleasant feeling.

So that is my news and no, no romance for Valentine’s!

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To end off I am going to share one of my swany-awesomeness items: a tune by a band called Lynyrd Skynyrd. The song quite aptly is called Simple Man.

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Being the scenic route guy that I am, I will share, as I generally do, a little of the band’s compelling story. They popularized  the Southern hard-rock genre during the 1970s, originally forming in 1966. The group settled on the name Leonard Skinnerd, which is a mocking tribute to a physical-education teacher at Robert E. Lee High School, Leonard Skinner. Skinner was notorious for strictly enforcing the school’s policy against boys having long hair. Despite their high school acrimony, the band developed a friendlier relationship with Skinner in later years, and even invited him to introduce them at a concert. Skinner also allowed the band to use a photo of his “Leonard Skinner Realty” sign for the inside of their third album. Isn’t that a cool origin story?

But as life is want to do along with the happy came a lot of sad!

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With their distinctive triple-lead guitar attack the band rose to worldwide recognition on the basis of its driving live performances and signature  American anthems such as Sweet Home Alabama and Free Bird. It was at the peak of their success when three members died in an airplane crash in 1977. Following a performance at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium in Greenville, South Carolina, on October 20, 1977 the band boarded a plane to Baton Rouge, Louisiana where they were scheduled to appear at LSU the following night. Due to a faulty engine, the airplane ran low on fuel and the pilots were diverted to the McComb-Pike County Airport. After running out of fuel they attempted an emergency landing before crashing in a heavily forested area five miles northeast of Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, the assistant road manager and the pilots were killed on impact; the other band members (Collins, Rossington, Wilkeson, Powell, Pyle, and Hawkins), tour manager Ron Eckerman, and the road crew suffered serious injuries.

The surviving band members re-formed in 1988 for a reunion tour with lead vocalist Johnny Van Zant, the younger brother of lead singer and founder, Ronnie Van Zant (that’s pretty cool too). The re-formed band continues to tour and record today. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the group No. 95 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. A really cool, honest, hard-working rock band, old school style!

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Free Bird is  a pretty cool song, but for me this is a classic which is why I am sharing it with you. A lesson on how to live your life.

 

Simple Man

Mama told me when I was young

Come sit beside me, my only son

And listen closely to what I say.

And if you do this

It will help you some sunny day.

Take your time… Don’t live too fast,

Troubles will come and they will pass.

Go find a woman and you’ll find love,

And don’t forget son,

There is someone up above.

 

[Chorus:]

And be a simple kind of man.

Be something you love and understand.

Baby, be a simple kind of man.

Oh won’t you do this for me son,

If you can?

 

Forget your lust for the rich man’s gold

All that you need is in your soul,

And you can do this if you try.

All that I want for you my son,

Is to be satisfied.

 

[Chorus:]

And be a simple kind of man.

Be something you love and understand.

Baby, be a simple kind of man.

Oh won’t you do this for me son,

If you can?

 

Boy, don’t you worry.

You’ll find yourself.

Follow your heart,

And nothing else.

You can do this,

If you try.

All that I want for you my son,

Is to be satisfied.

 

[Chorus:]

And be a simple kind of man.

Be something you love and understand.

Baby, be a simple kind of man.

Oh won’t you do this for me son,

If you can?

 

Baby, be a simple, be a simple man

Oh, be something you love and understand

Baby, be a simple kind of man

Songwriters: VAN ZANT, RONNIE / ROSSINGTON, GARY ROBERT

Simple Man lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

 

He For She – the Aftermath

There has been considerable talk generated by Emma Watson’s speech on feminism, both for and against, praising and criticising her. To a certain extent this is good because it is, firstly, at least getting people to speak about these issues and dialogue happening. However, I am saddened though when she is attacked by certain feminists themselves. I have, as I have mentioned, a genuine interest in these issues, so a lot of colleagues, fellow artists and friends have been sending me links and commentaries regarding this issue. Here some excerpts from an email I sent to a gallery owner in way of summing up my opinion.

(going to check out a site which the email described as: “A really succinct, accessible deconstruction of Emma Watson’s (essentially very problematic) UN WOMEN speech. Please don’t just read the title. I think this whole ‘He For She’ campaign is totally misguided, and it’s important to consider why”.

This was my response to the criticism aimed at Emma Watson by the writer on this site:

Hi, I read it and yes, the writer does make some valid points but what she does not acknowledge is that we all reflect a point of view that is partly composed of our upbringing, societal influences, race, sex and a whole myriad of other things. Just like her (the writer’s) point of view is formed in part by being black, American etc. I guarantee you that there will be a lot of “Third World” feminists who will take offence to the fact that a “First World” feminist claims to be speaking for them even if she is black. What I’m saying is that it is easy to tear someone down after the fact and use their race and social standing to do that. Hell, white males in power have been doing it for generations. How do you think they have stayed in power? I am sure guys like Trump love it when feminists start squabbling amongst each other because it takes their focus away from where it should be, on changing our societies. So yes, Emma’s speech is flawed and does not mention all the points that everyone would like mentioned but the fact that she chooses a side and asks others to, is a good thing and a step in the right direction. That’s my opinion anyway.

And that is my opinion, and it is important that we all have one. However, there is a difference between having an opinion and merely dismissing someone else’s or in fact, launching a personal attack on them in an attempt to discredit them. Yes, Emma is white and British (Western, First World) and from a privileged upbringing, and seriously wealthy because of her acting career. However, she does not claim to be speaking from any viewpoint other than her own. She has been criticized for that, and for the so-called “centralizing” of the oppressor (read white males) in her speech. I really don’t agree, but I suppose as a white male I would not. I feel, as I think Emma does, that males can help, and in fact, want to help, even need to help! Beyonce was even brought up in one argument!!! I quote: “Beyoncé, who, by the way, rarely even gets the benefit of the doubt from white feminists, let alone hailed as feminist queen of all things, when her feminist expressions are less than perfect”. Beyoncé is a very successful, strong, proud woman, no question! She however needs to, if she wants to be taken seriously as a feminist, sort out that misogynist husband of hers. As is generally the case, any cause should begin at home. It is at home where feminism should start. If there is mutual respect between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, this will be carried over into our societies and the work place and transformation will take place.

And that is my opinion!