Picturing Loss –Dr. Eva Seidner
Essay for catalogue.
Deon Venter’s monumental paintings transmute headline into myth, posing disturbing questions about history, loss and the enigmas of our own human nature.
Each of the paintings in the group presents a strong central image of what was once a vital icon, the repository of a civilization’s spiritual and cultural values, now in ruins. The image appears behind or within a grid, either suggested or overtly articulated, which intercedes between the image itself and the eye of the viewer. This strategy produces, in effect, an abstract painting over a representational one, creating an intervening plane or layer of perception. Like the alienation effects of modernist stagecraft, the superimposed pattern prevents the viewer from entering the world of the painting in a purely emotional, uncritical way, as we often respond to headlines. We are caught off-balance, wondering how fully we are apprehending the image before us and all that it implies.
The superimposed patterns further serve to force the viewer’s eye from each individual part of the image to the whole and back again, repeatedly. The parts work like individual tesserae in a mosaic, each unique and integral in itself, and also partaking of the whole and necessary to its completion. Every time the viewer’s apprehension moves from part to whole, he must re-evaluate and re-integrate what he learns.
In “Columbia”, Venter has shown hundreds of fragments retrieved from the crashed space shuttle. The shards are being reassembled inside an airplane hangar on a giant grid of the sort used by archaeologists. Punctuated by orange cones, the grid lines stretch away into the far distance near the top of the painting, to a vanishing point defined by the steel framed wall at the rear of the hangar.
What strikes one first about this image of hopelessly dispersed fragments is how much of the spacecraft is missing and forever irretrievable. We see simultaneously not only the outline of the Columbia but its implied opposite: the structure that ascended into the skies, and the ruin that fell to earth, all its life and lives extinguished.
In addition to dividing the site into finite portions the lines of the grid serve to emphasize the fathomless depths over which the fragments hover. Built up by drips and layers of pigment and other materials, the spaces between the interstices are bottomless. It is as if the carefully laid-out gridlines are a perilous network of tightropes stretched over infinitive and eternal Space. The overriding sense created by the image is of how ephemeral are the calculated and quantifiable activities of scientists in the face of such mystery. One thinks of God’s answer to Job, who demanded to know the reason for his persecution: ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?’
And yet, paradoxically, what begins as a temporal event is transformed by Venter’s art into a vision of mythological proportions and universal implications. The crash of Columbia, the event which gave rise to the painting, lies in the past; but the painting and the issues it raises endure to address the viewer over and over again.
In “Farm” the densely-layered surface is further elaborated with the addition of broken miniature children’s toys embedded into the tar, paint, and other media. This risky strategy succeeds in creating the sense of a high aerial point of view, as well as figuring forth the destruction of innocence with startling immediacy and in a starkly unexpected way.
Our far-removed vantage point is welcome, considering what we are being asked to look at. The genesis of the image was an aerial photograph of the pig farm in British Columbia where William Pickton allegedly murdered young women and tried to eliminate their decimated remains by feeding them to his pigs. The scale of the painting and our distance from the scene, however, immediately invite our extrapolation from a single horrific event to many massacres in different places and times throughout history.
Indeed, what “Farm” shows is the full-blown destruction of the Pastoral myth. From earliest times a retreat to rural simplicity offered relief from the corruptions and complications of the city, and an opportunity to restore balance through physical and spiritual renewal. The original myth embedded in this impulse to move from city to country is, of course, paradisal: the dream of regaining the Garden of Eden, Venter’s “Farm”, is an ironic, dystopian projection of the Pastoral, its bloodstained landscape choked with nameless garbage and its gruesome secrets only partially unearthed. Nor can we ever know what is ‘buried’ beneath the overlaid arrangement of vertical tabs.
The vortex of all this darkness lies at the upper left of the painting, in the shedlike building with the yawning, vacant doorway. Here Venter has deliberately refrained from covering the tar base with pigment, with the result that the interior of the shed recalls the bottomless spaces of “Columbia”. One thinks inevitably of Dante’s gateway to the Underworld, with its inscription “Abandon hope ye who enter here”. The objects scattered around the entrance have no specificity, appearing as abstract forms in contrast to the detritus of tiny, detailed tires and vehicles scattered everywhere else. This is no single, specific landscape: we have ventured into the disenchanted ground of myth.
And yet vestiges of what has been broken and defiled remain visible, just as our yearning for a return to peace and innocence persists throughout the ages. Why do human beings continue to create such chaos; why do we continually thwart our entry into the original Garden? Venter’s painting is not only richly sculptural and tactile. It is plaintive and, paradoxically, beautiful.
The three paintings which derive their imagery from sites in Afghanistan also deal with what has been desecrated and lost. Their subject matter may suggest a specific political position, although it is clear that Afghanistan stands also for many other places and times. Venter’s paintings are political, but they are also resolutely nonpartisan. It is the artist as outsider who addresses us here, raising questions about the ways in which art and memory can challenge oblivion.
“Museum” and “Palace” occupy opposite ends of the continuum with respect to the regenerative power of memory. The former seems to me the least hopeful of the three paintings. The museum is a charred, denuded wreck, its empty plinths [in the foreground] overturned, and its blackened, vacant windows emblematic of the emptiness within. The building seems to stretch infinitely back, disappearing off the right side of the canvas in an endless procession of vacant galleries. The bright-red, downward-pointing tabs laid over the surface of the image almost eclipse its waning presence. They point to the inexorable progress of dissolution that will eventually claim all that is left of the structure.
Yet to an artist like Venter, concerned not only with the past but with the legacy to future generations implied by the idea of a museum, the greater devastation lies within the building, in the eradication of everything the museum once preserved and enshrined. The artifacts which formed the “glue” of a culture, those tangible expressions of its shared histories and beliefs, have been stolen or dashed into oblivion. Present and future artists have no further access to them. The past is inert, absent, dead.
In “Palace” the main parts of the building have been laid waste, just as the museum has. Yet this painting does not convey the sense of hopeless finality of the previous one. Paradoxically, the physical destruction of the palace in the historical moment seems to mark the beginning of another process, a transformative one, which occurs outside time. The delicate skeletal fretwork of the cupolas has not survived the devastation; it has re-materialized out of its own demise like the magical castles of folktales. Against a muddied but gold-colored sky, it appears buoyant, floating with its ramparts upon a white platform over a gray field. The riveted oblique slats within the grid pattern seem to reinforce the image, stabilizing it and helping to keep it intact.
To what agency can such a resurrection be ascribed? Venter’s painting implies that Art, acting upon memory, can restore a portion of what is lost, creating a resurgence from dead past into eternally present myth. However tentatively, the icon begins to live and breathe again.
“Buddha” offers another example of resurgent Presence in a place of physical absence or loss. The second-century Buddha of the headlines, the largest extant statue of its kind, was dynamited by the Taliban in 2001, after repeated efforts to destroy it by other means had failed. The central image of Venter’s “Buddha” is an empty niche it once occupied. Yet while the stone statue is gone, the essential Buddha remains, strongly outlined behind a pattern of quadrisected circles. Although it may appear forever trapped in the cross hairs of a firing squad, the image and all that it embodies endure.
“Bed” appears to shift ground from the large-scale public icon to the private, domestic one. But to those who recognize the image, Venter’s thematic concern with the vulnerability of artifacts is just as central here as it is elsewhere. For the bed Venter presents, with significant changes and, of course, in a different medium, is “My Bed”, and installation by Tracey Emin, which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999 and subsequently incorporated into the Saatchi Collection.
Emin’s installation was instantly controversial owing to its intimately autobiographical content and implied salacious nature. The photograph of it shows a partly uncovered bed with stained, rumpled sheets. On the floor next to it lie scattered dirty underpants, Kleenexes, used condoms, medicine and vodka bottles, and other unsavory debris. In the background is a coiled rope suspended from a hook, ominously suggestive of some kind of violence, possibly sexual.
“My Bed” made headlines in the popular press not as an example of the extreme avant garde, but because two men “assaulted” it while it was on display in the Tate Gallery, jumping and rolling on top of it and drinking from the liquor bottles before finally being arrested. The same two men on another occasion urinated in Duchamp’s “La fontaine” at the Tate Modern.
Venter’s painting rescues “My Bed” from the sensationalistic headlines and restores it to its true status as an artistic construct. He does so without offering any judgment or speculation about whether Emin’s work is “good art” or “bad art”. The point, finally and indisputably, is that “My Bed” is art, just as Duchamp’s “La fontaine” is art, and that is the proposition from which all debate concerning it must begin.
Venter has made a number of important alterations to the photographic image which was his source. First he eliminates the suggestive, threatening rope. Second he makes the disconcertingly personal, impersonal: all the offensive, unhygienic elements in the installation have been cleansed from his image. For example the discarded objects on the floor have been departicularized into vague forms lying innocuously on a dark field. And third, in front of the entire image Venter has erected a protective fence comprising a grid and sixteen horizontal slats, each firmly secured by six bolts. In doing so, he metaphorically affirms Voltaire’s credo: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
As a result, Venter’s “Bed” floats serenely beyond violence, above the mundane world of its origin and defilement, and into the timeless, blue space of Myth.
With “Ground Zero”, Venter brings this group of paintings full circle to “Columbia”, with another cataclysmic event on American soil. To create a work about or around this history-altering event is a complicated undertaking for an artist who eschews political partisanship and didacticism. For most of us, the Towers continue to fall, as they did in the endlessly repeated “live” television images of 9/11. It seems impossible not to react with fierce emotion, not to take sides. Yet in place of emotion, Venter achieves contemplation; in place of open wounds, he shows us scars.
Perhaps the most important decision the artist has made in the creation of this work, is that of the “moment” he has chosen to present. Government and other websites display continuously changing pictures of the cleanup and reconstruction operations taking place at Ground Zero. However, Venter has derived his image from a moment not of feverish activity but of almost preternatural stillness; he has eliminated workmen, vehicles, debris, and time itself. There is no sense of any identifiable past, present or future. Ground Zero is caught in a deserted, silent and dispassionate space, like the skeleton of some giant, long extinct species stretched out for scientific examination.
The muted palate and the abstracted form of the buildings contribute to this depersonalization of the image, reinforcing the sense of its distance from us and its retreat into history. It is a study in blacks, whites and grays, overlaid by layers of shellac to further mellow the surface. The energetic, colorful drips which are ubiquitous in Venter’s work are mostly confined here to the right side of the canvas, beneath the tall building which appears to be on the point of crumbling. The masked-out, tar-covered spaces, another signature of the artist’s style, are indicative of loss through violence, as in the windows of “Palace” and “Museum”, and here are objectified as scars. [Indeed an earlier group of paintings was entitled “Wound, Scab, Scar”.] In a physical as well as a metaphorical sense, the entire site of Venter’s Ground Zero is a scar, almost all of it below ground level.
The light areas which counterpoint the dark are given a rough, industrial texture by the addition to the pigments of crushed fired clays. These forms represent the broken structures of parking lots, tall buildings, a train station platform and a road. Their connotations are significant. The automobile, the train, the skyscraper – all are symbols of the great myth of the 19th and 20th centuries: Progress.
The almost obliterated grid pattern with its sixty-three tiny squares functions differently here than in the other paintings. Here these produce no intervening barrier, no reassuring scaffold or fence. Some of the white squares disappear against a white ground, while others hover uncertainly over an irregular surface or blackened scar. Everything is suspended in our contemplation and in our state of doubt. And yet everything is potential, awaiting the construction of a new myth, the beginning of a new history.
Moving toward a vision that will endure long after the political event which engendered it, Venter’s art is a mode of history painting, without that tradition’s aim to either glorify or condemn. The aim of Venter’s work is to encourage reassessment, to forcefully pose troubling questions at a time when easy answers and entrenched partisan positions are the norm.
Paradoxically, he is a hopeful artist, his hopefulness residing not in the images of loss and destruction he presents but in his belief in the power of art to transmute them into living myth. There are no ‘right’ answers, and that is precisely the reason to keep asking the right questions.