Art Review

Latest Christo Coetzee exhibition revisits the cutting edge

A rich retrospective on show in Johannesburg re-introduces the work of South African artist Christo Coetzee, writes Dave Mann

18 November 2018 - 00:00 By David Mann

You can tell a lot about an artist by the way they choose to part with their works. Some artists let their galleries do the talking, or they opt to sell their works privately. Others, such as Christo Coetzee, choose to donate most of their works to university collections. It is because of this that we can so richly trace the life and work of the late South African artist.
Currently on show at Johannesburg's Standard Bank Gallery, The Safest Place is the Knife's Edge: Christo Coetzee (1929-2000) is perhaps one of the most detailed and far-reaching retrospective exhibitions that the gallery has seen in a good while.
Curated by Wilhelm van Rensburg and Shonisani Netshia, the exhibition draws its title from a 1979 interview in which Coetzee responded to a question about the role of artists in society - "And the safest place is really the knife's edge," he mused. This was four years after he famously slashed his own paintings at a solo show in Cape Town.
The knife's edge here refers to both Coetzee's penchant for challenging the way we engage with visual works as well as his desire to experiment with new forms and methods of art. While the former may have made it difficult for Coetzee to fit into the local market, the latter saw him remaining firmly on the cutting edge of the contemporary art world globally.
Coetzee, argues the exhibition's accompanying statement, was already a world-class artist in the 1950s and '60s, yet he chose to return to SA, where he enjoyed a relatively small amount of recognition. So what can we learn from the life's work of a South African artist who's all but disappeared from contemporary conversations in South African art?
FIRST, A LITTLE HISTORY
Coetzee's career can be traced back to his time at Wits University, where he studied alongside a group of ground-breaking artists such as Cecil Skotnes, Larry Scully, Gordon Vorster, Nel Erasmus, Anna Vorster and Esmé Berman. The Wits Group, as they came to be known, played a large role in pushing past SA's fascination with naturalistic, landscape-based art and into the realms of abstract art. It was also here that Coetzee met his first wife, who he'd move to London with, studying British Modernism before returning to SA.
From there he moved to Italy, where he experimented with rudimentary forms of Assemblage work and was introduced to the idea of Art Informel - the European reaction to American abstract expressionism. Through the help of a friend and patron, Coetzee then moved to Japan to live and study. It was here that he met the Gutai Group, a radical post-war art collective who he spent much of his time with in Japan, and who had a profound influence on his practice.
All of this can be traced through the works on show at the Standard Bank Gallery.
Titled works such as Black Rose Africa, Flower on a Spanish Afternoon and On the London Embankment reference his geographical wanderings, while works such as Tour de France - a bicycle wheel entrapped in paint and canvas - and Athene/Diana - a large-scale paint and Perspex work - showcase his Assemblage and Hermetic periods.
"I think that South African artists today can be inspired by Coetzee's exhibition and learn to not be limited in terms of experimenting and exploring with a diverse range of materials, as well as to have the persistence to revisit particular ideas from a different angle," says co-curator Netshia.
"In my view, this retrospective exhibition inserts Coetzee's work back into the South African art landscape and affords contemporary art scholars, and art lovers the opportunity to appreciate and to re-asses or re-examine Coetzee's work and legacy within the history of South African art."
BOLDNESS
Indeed, some of the most intriguing works in this exhibition come from Coetzee's enduring (re)interrogations of the way we see things. Works like Baron II, a slashed painting sutured back together with shoestrings and bootstraps, serve as a visual disruption.
What do we take away from the image that used to be? And how do we begin to make sense of a work that's undergone such drastic surgery?
Then there is Forma Decorum, a mixed-media work, much of which has been blacked out through paint on Perspex. Such a work can be frustrating or it can be inviting, depending on how you look at it. What lies beneath the blacked-out Perspex surrounding the Renaissance-style figure? What is hidden from the eye?
As with many of Coetzee's works, it's only once you abandon the simple act of viewing a mounted work and begin to take note of the other elements at play - the way shadows form when light falls through a punctured canvas, or how a portrait's expression changes as you attempt to peek through the layers of paint and plastic - that you'll find what it is you're looking for.
As Netshia puts it, Coetzee's works "display a presence and a boldness, encouraging viewers to engage with their materiality, scale, and volume and, I hope, to consider alternative methods and means to making and appreciating art".
• 'The Safest Place is the Knife's Edge: Christo Coetzee (1929 - 2000)' runs at the Standard Bank Gallery until December 1...

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