Penny Siopis I Goodman Gallery I Johannesburg
Penny Siopis’ Passions and Panics is a visually powerful exhibition that engages the viewer on many levels: sensory, emotional and intellectual. Constituted largely of recent bodies of work, it included Shame (2004-05), Blush (2005) and Strays (2005). Also shown, albeit rather incongruously, was Pinky Pink (2002-05) – the anxiety-inducing, grotesque but strangely vulnerable character drawn from South African urban legend. Siopis, with some irony, imagines this character to be a nauseatingly flesh-pink, corporeal creature.I was drawn first to the Shame series, a monumental installation of 90 small-scale works exploring acts of violence inflicted on the bodies of young girls. The works resonate with the horror of sexual violence, ubiquitous in contemporary South African society and its news media, and disallow any sense of complacency. The sensuous beauty of Siopis’ lacquered, dripping surfaces and the intensity of her glossy red palette (she works here with lacquer, oil and enamel paint) compelled me to look at images that were simultaneously difficult to face. These included unsettling sexualised images of young girls and adults and vulnerable often ghoulish little figures, empty carcasses of long-lashed doll’s eyes too. Some of the works are embellished with decorative motifs, lettering and the sickly sweet texts of greeting cards. “May your day be full of sunshine and smiles,” reads one. “Thank you for sharing this special day with us,” states another. With disconcerting irony Siopis stamps these artificial sentiments onto the works using craft rubber stamps.Her tactile surfaces and reverberating red palette continued through much of the show. I enjoyed her dialogue with the vast visual archives of European art history. Blush: Kiki is an ironic play on Man Ray’s photograph Noir et Blanche (1926), depicting Kiki de Montparnasse, with whom Man Ray had a love affair while in Paris in the 1920s. No mere artist’s model, she was a chanteuse, actress and an artist in her own right. Siopis re-imagines with camp exaggeration Man Ray’s famous composition. Kiki’s immaculately made-up, sleeping face is juxtaposed with an African mask, evoking the modernist artist’s preoccupation with an imagined Africa. In Siopis’ work, Kiki’s delicate visage and the mask that accompanies it is countered by a mass of gluey, glossy, red paints that ooze over the lower right hand side of the picture-plane. Blush: Red Head Bound suggests the romance of the deathly pale, languorous women of the Decadent sensibility draped, eyes closed and mouth slightly open in a state between orgasm and death, across the canvases of the European fin-de-siècle. Siopis allows her white paint, the background against which her attenuated, exaggeratedly red-haired female figure stretches, to texture, drip, and congeal, drawing attention to the sensual pleasure of the painted surface. Onto this nuanced, exquisite painting Siopis fixes the siren’s flame-red, synthetic hair. The jarring effect elicits an experience poised ambiguously between sensuous reverie, irony and exaggerated emotion.The exhibition is a rich and visually saturated experience. It offers both Siopis’ intellectually engaging, often witty, dialogue with a range of historical, social and cultural texts and the sensuous, pleasure of her painted surfaces.