The stark contexture of the paintings in Trasi Henen’s Delicate Life Pursuer belies the exhibition title. Life is squashed out of the paintings by her layered structural conglomerations. The exhibition continues the theme of “fractured and alienated suburban spaces”, raised in Henen’s previous exhibitions, Suburbia Fantastical (2003) and Passer By 2005). However, contrary to these exhibitions, which still allowed for mythical space and a human subject, there is complete anonymity and absolute alienation in these paintings. Only impossible spaces are even alluded to, but hidden by dense superstructures.
Clustering architectural forms into absurd intertwinings that deny mathematical or physical laws, Henen creates claustrophobic monuments that seem to crowd any fragile human subject out of the canvas. Walls, pillars, balustrades, windows, scaffolding, roofs, stairs, balconies, bricks and palisade seem to weave into each other rather than hinge off each other. Shadows, layered oil work and meticulous rectilinear brushwork create a tapestry of positive and negative space that frames two- and three-dimensional planes. The theatrical fourth wall is often accentuated by a slashed brushstroke, which seems to cut the canvas surface, the painting itself crawling out onto the gallery wall.Upside down houses that are right way up, wrecks that are castles, facades that have depth and mansions floating on a string – one gets lost trying to trace an escape from these edificial webs, like a nightmare of endless doors. It is as though MC Escher’s prints of the marching minions on the circular stairs were a balloon that has been deflated. Even Henen’s few human figures resemble these faceless marching droids.The one clear human figure on this show appears in Qufhbnmk; an enlargement from a magazine photo, he is also defaced by a mask formed by architectural elements. Forming the back of the man’s head on the opposite side of the partition is another enlargement: a long mop of blonde hair – it clearly does not match up. However, along with a video work from one of her earlier exhibitions, these works are incongruous with the rest of the exhibition.Anecdotally, this is the first exhibition that Henen has created and exhibited in the Western Cape since relocating from Johannesburg earlier this year. The severe architectural claustrophobia of her paintings might be considered incongruent with the stereotypical perceptions of Cape Town’s airy geography. Indeed, Delicate Life Pursuer resists any anecdotal, social-political or contemporary reading, despite seeming to echo the suburban fear, anxiety and alienation so very topical in South Africa. Instead, without a view of the subject, the object of fear, alienation and hate is erased too. Rather than a subjective assertion of, “I am alienated from…” the works assert “I am alienated” – unlike the typical South African rhetoric that always includes an other.Akin to Jean Baudrillard’s “violence of indifference”, the overarching universal has failed, creating disarmed, impotent singularities. It is not about South Africa at all. Instead, alienation is itself a stance activated by the very fragmentation and isolation constructed by her sometimes clinical, sometimes violent brushstrokes. There is no trace of sentimental longing towards the mythical elements of Henen’s earlier work.Of course, Baudrillard is dead and it’s about time that someone wrote a new requiem to modern day living. One mostly hopes that an artist will bring a new ring or a glimmer of hope. However, I fear that all Henen manages is to trap a body’s worth of the suburban alienation in each of her knitted buildings.