During a preview of her survey exhibition, ‘Time and Again’ – a chronological survey spanning 35 years of painting, film and installation elegantly installed across five rooms at the National Gallery in Cape Town – Penny Siopis invoked Walter Benjamin, in particular his now-liturgical description of history as a ‘single catastrophe’ where the wreckage keeps on piling up. Siopis, an unabashed historical materialist whose work is marked by its fidelity to the figure and documentary impulse, was standing in front of an installation titled Charmed Lives (2014). Previously shown as a floor-based piece, the new vertical display includes cast-off domestic trinkets, military objects, security paraphernalia and clothing drawn from the artist’s extensive archive of things.
Siopis’s invocation of Benjamin, who wrote about ‘triumphal’ displays and their nexus to ‘horror’ and ‘barbarism’, was not simply meant to clarify the installation. Displayed a few paces from where the artist stood was Melancholia (1986), a lavish banquet scene that, along with William Kentridge’s mid-1980s drawings and prints, has come to define the fin de siècle character of South Africa’s lapsed white republic. But let’s ignore Benjamin for a moment in favour of one his more enigmatic interpreters. There is a muckraking body of local knowledge that takes common cause with Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig’s assertion, from his 2006 essay ‘What colour is the sacred?’, that ‘colour amounts to crime’, an excessive property that prompts ‘fear and desire’ in viewers and arguments over ‘truth and deceit’. Melancholia, a gaudy atrocity typical of the politically inclined Neo-expressionism once fashionable amongst local painters, certainly runs contrary to the muted hues of Kentridge’s work, for instance, but it is equally canonical.
Late into his wandering essay, Taussig turns his attention to Marcel Proust, who himself was pre-occupied with Johannes Vermeer. ‘Style’, offers Taussig, ‘is to the writer what colour is to the painter.’ Siopis’s survey is a cornucopia of colour: mostly exhausted greens, flagrant reds, fleshy pinks and, in Per Kind Permission: Fieldwork (1994), a 17-minute performance video in which the artist’s back becomes the ground for a drawing experiment, white. Colour is an abundant and vital medium for Siopis, and a material signifier. ‘Much of the sense of what I do is embedded in the medium itself,’ she said in 2011.
‘Time and Again’ opens with a selection of the artist’s so-called ‘cake’ paintings, austere sexualized melodramas created using cake-icing nozzles. Presented like anthropological specimens – in rows, on painted depictions of elementary plinths and tables – the dirty pink and stained white globules of oil paint and wax resemble cakes, but also breasts and vaginas. As in Siopis’s subsequent works on canvas, there is revelry and excess or, to put it bluntly, fun, albeit with full awareness of the shadow of morbidity, carnality and violence. Underpinning all of this is a clearly articulated sense that paint is more than simply material: it is also thought.
In past interviews, Siopis has spoken of her interest in Georges Bataille, notably his idea of l’informe (formlessness). ‘Bataille’s informe is an operation, neither theory nor product, and in this I see something of my process,’ she stated in 2009. Her painting is, in many ways, an extended conversation with formlessness, its necessity but also its inoperability as an end goal for the medium. ‘Time and Again’ charts her recurring return to the stability of the figure. It memorably includes a selection of her humanoid ‘Pinky Pinky’ figures, so named for an imaginary sexual predator that Siopis gave form to between 2002 and 2004, which she based on interviews with schoolgirls. The ghost of Sigmund Freud and his panegyrics on feminine sexuality are a recurring theme in the artist’s work. The survey also includes examples of her recent oil, ink and glue paintings, in which the figure is subordinated – but not forsaken – to process. Migrants (2008), a fire-red and smoky-white explosion of congealed paint and glue made shortly after the 2008 xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg, is typical of her current gestural practice.
During the late 1980s, responding to the legislated ‘state of emergency’ in South Africa, Siopis committed herself fully to the human figure. Patience on a Monument: ‘A History Painting’ (1988), an oil and collage study of a female anti-hero seated on a mound of debris peeling a lemon, is her best known work from this period. It is also a painting laden with the infrastructure of theory. Her short films, most of them impressionistic pieces composed from found amateur footage and directed at elliptically narrating a historical incident – the murder of a nun and assassination of a politician – do the same thing, only less fixedly. ‘Time and Again’ gorgeously lays bare the multiple repetitions at the core of Siopis’s practice. It reveals as much as it affirms an artist driven by the relentless compulsion to remake and redo, and by so doing constantly discover something new.