Obert Contemporary | Johannesburg
The libretto of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera Turn of the Screw, based on the Victorian tale by Henry James, contains subversive elements that play into an understanding of taboo wrapped in religious dogma. In church, the children, who are possessed by ghosts, twist hymn lyrics and apparently innocently sing, “O amnis axis caulis collis clunis crinis fascis folis, bless ye the Lord”, which translates from the Latin to, “O arsehole, scrotum, penis, bless ye the Lord”. This subversion resonates with the individual titles of Maja Maljevic’s monsters, which are billed as protectors of different things, ranging from the serious to the insanely trivial, “the universe” to “bubblegum chewers”, “the city” to “grain fed adults and organic kids”.It is this underplayed subversion that is the strength of Maljevic’s work, grouped under the title Pretty Monsters. Dealing with society rather than sexuality, on a titular level, these works engage ironically with what protection represents in our contemporary world. Stylistically, the monsters are redolent of Art Brut that developed under Jean Dubuffet in 1945. Practitioners of Art Brut were understood to make art on the social margins, engaging with values cast by child art, art made by prisoners or lunatics. In this capacity, Maljevic’s monsters contain a formlessness that causes them to teeter between being conceptually engaging and slipping into abstracted cliché. The works are handled gutturally, but with whimsy. The paint is thick, gritty and cloying. The colour is generally saturated but the monsters’ features are seldom structured, which makes them ambiguously legible, often like children’s scribble patterns, enabling the emergence of spontaneous beasts. Some are like rotting chunks of raw meat, others like machines with obscure purposes. They lack real horror or humour, however.Works on paper and small paintings bolster the collection of nine large oils. The paper works are named “paper protectors” and “tiny paper protectors”, respectively, offering the same wild delineation and unformed characterisation as the large, colourful monsters. It is a pity these were not exhibited framed on the gallery’s walls, instead they were shown rather casually assembled in a pile on the gallery’s desk. Maljevic’s small paintings, however, represent her strongest statement. These combine the use of collaged elements like playing cards, which echo the quirks of 1920s and 30s European modernism, yet remain compelling in their own right, as small monsters and protectors of obscure concerns. Educated in Belgrade but settled locally, Maljevic engages ironically with our need for protection in our post-everything world. Pretty Monsters visually complements her Eurocentric repertoire; conceptually, they subvert hegemonic values.