What a joy to walk into a gallery filled with paintings, a rare experience in recent times, yet one that is gaining ground. And who better to encounter than Penny Siopis, the consummate painter who first emerged on the South African art scene in the early 1980s with her luscious “cake” paintings.
What a joy to walk into a gallery filled with paintings, a rare experience in recent times, yet one that is gaining ground. And who better to encounter than Penny Siopis, the consummate painter who first emerged on the South African art scene in the early 1980s with her luscious “cake” paintings. The great mannerist interiors that followed became spatially and thematically increasingly complex, and the female figure occupied centre stage in the “history” paintings, which saw the introduction of collage. Siopis then moved on to video and photo-based media, and also explored three-dimensionality, the found objects she used in her accumulations and installations literally piling wreckage upon wreckage.Some admirers were secretly wishing for Siopis the painter to re-emerge. It happened in 2002, when oil paint found its way back into the Pinky Pinky series; in her subsequent mixed media Shame series (2003-04), the heavy impasto and accretions made way for fluid patches and splatters of colour. Her 2007 solo show Lasso comprised combinations of oil, ink and glue. The glue added a new dimension and it remains a palpable element in the current exhibition, in which she relies on fields of colour, drips and dribbles to create form and maintain a sense of materiality.Siopis’ career reveals extraordinary shifts and changes, but leitmotifs have presented themselves since the beginning: allegory, ritual, sexuality, vulnerability, estrangement and the uncanny. Then as now, her practice is informed and characterised by theoretical self-consciousness, an abiding interest in psychoanalysis and women’s experiences, tensions between public and private domains, references ranging across a multitude of disciplines and cultures, and an unfailing commitment to technical experimentation. For Siopis medium, message and meaning are inseparable.This new body of work presents painting of a different kind. Siopis knows all about the seductive and emotive qualities of paint and colour, and the power of dynamic compositions. At first glance Claude Monet’s marvellous paintings of water lilies are evoked in Still Waters, but all is not still and the viewer is not allowed to indulge for too long in the beauty and lyricism of green and blue pools of colour. The translucent jellyfish are deadly poisonous and the undercurrents are inexorably sucking the Ophelia figure into a watery grave; her face – rendered in viscous glue – already has the appearance of a death mask.In Three Trees colour turns violent. The work is inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, but there is no calm eroticism – the swathes of colour, anchored by the trees, and the fluid rendering of the figures contrast with the realistic painting of the ropes that hold the woman’s legs splayed for bloody penetration. Women and men are caught in swirling liquid (Wrest) or enmeshed in spiky branches (Pine). Where there is a centre, it will not hold. The isolated figures in Anonymous and Hundred Pieces exude discomfort, trauma and psychic dislocation. Siopis’ Twins are physically joined; yet their disconnection is palpable as they merge in an empty, timeless space.Miracle is one of the most compelling and disturbing works on the exhibition. It is drawn from media reports of desperate women throwing their babies out of burning buildings in an effort to save them. This vast apocalyptic eruption is a tour de force in abstract painting, embodying both control and chance. The canvas is variously stained and saturated with layers of colour that strain out of the confines of the picture surface. The glue – smooth, flat and foreign – separates and renders ghostly the tiny figure adrift in an unstable space. Siopis’ enduring fascination and dialogue with the dimensionality of the painted surface is nowhere more evident.Migrants also offers passages of spectacular abstract painting, but when the viewer is seduced to closer inspection, the menace and threat of the dark, sharp-beaked birds attacking and consuming their prey of flying ants impinge on the senses. The paint is thin and light at the top, and gradually darkens and deepens towards the bottom, with an irresistible centrifugal force radiating from and drawing the eye to the feeding frenzy.There is a romantic impulse in these paintings that is reminiscent of nineteenth century Romanticism, the individual helpless in the face of psychic, metaphysical, karmic and natural forces; the soul in exile.Marilyn Martin is an art historian, writer and curator based in Cape Town