'In understanding the impulse to create an illusion of space out of nothing, I like the comparison with music because it's easier to understand because music does not 'exist', it's entirely a construct made by our brains. A bit of paint on a flat canvas is the same thing but somehow it is harder for us to accept that because a painting is fixed in time, whereas music passes. And this fixity in time seems to make it more real than it is.'
- Deborah Poynton
Our third summer exhibition to reflect on the construction of imagery, Schema considers the nature of perspective and perception. In accordance with the Greek word for 'shape' or 'plan', which refers to the way the mind makes a structured order out of what we see, the works on this exhibition imagine many different ways of seeing space, depth and surface illusion. So compelling is the human predisposition to see the world in three dimensions that the mind constantly fools the eye into decoding flat stimuli as having depth. The device of perspective to manipulate this human habit has governed ways of representing and seeing in the Western world since its discovery in the early Renaissance, so much so that we easily overlook that it is only a schema. At the time when optics, geometry and mathematics were 'discovered' and integrated into painting, it was advocated as an ultimate truth, an inescapable law, allied to ideas of progress, newness and improvement. Perspective was embraced because it described the world via a formula, according to a rational, repeatable and easily learned procedure, corresponding to the Enlightenment thinking of its time, where everything could eventually be explained scientifically and not just in religious terms. The world could be reduced to an image.
With perspectival painting, the eye of the beholder became the image's place of departure. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, articulates the narcissistic sense of control as we stand at the centre of the picture we are looking at. As he writes, the convention of perspective - which is unique to European art -
'centres everything on the eye of the beholder, it is like a beam from a lighthouse - only instead of light travelling outwards, appearances travel in. The conventions called those appearances reality. Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.'
The novelty and complexity of single-point perspective, applying mathematical precision and optics to create the illusion of depth, initially illustrated the virtuosity of artists, until this way of seeing became the convention. For German art historian Erwin Panofsky, this dogma of geometric correctness saw the 'objectification of the subjective'. In his view, the vision of the world offered by exact perspectival construction was alluring, but in fact remained a 'systematic abstraction from the structure of the psychophysiological space'. We remain conditioned by this construction of space and it is now the default way of seeing, to the extent that it is a challenge to un-see it. An example is Robin Rhode who exploits this way of seeing in his wall drawings yet simultaneously is also interested in the idea of further dimensions:
'The object that was drawn always symbolised a kind of object of desire, and the scenario was an extension of a dream of a desire to a dimension that you could place yourself inside. That is how I understood my drawing field. I refer to the space in which the body is engaging with the drawings as a kind of drawing field that can extend not only to the artist or the performer but also to the audience.'
After 19th century academy painting reached a height (or depth) of perspectival perfection, the Cubists rearranged pictorial space into something far from the presumed accuracy of an eye or a lens, more akin to our ways of seeing than those permitted by optics and geometry. From these artists onward, the realisation that three-dimensional space is only a pervading schema has made many artists curious of other traditions of art, which have found alternative ways of depicting space without pervasive perspectival demands. The aesthetic conventions of Mughal painting, Japanese prints and the art of Africa in particular have been liberating, as described by the Malawian-born artist Samson Kambalu:
'The problem of representation has never been a problem in African art because we never had the Renaissance ... The art that I grew up seeing in Malawi ... had a different conception of art. So when I started asking what art speaks to me, I was no longer interested in the question of representation and its long history in Western art.'
Almost a century since modern art exploded the act of looking - exemplified in this exhibition by the inclusion of early 20th century experimental films by the German artist Hans Richter, who posed critical questions about the construction (and refusal) of spatial illusion - art is unhindered by dogmatic rules of image-making. In the words of the painter Deborah Poynton:
'I am always fascinated that when we look at an image, we take it as fact, as an actual thing. Fact not only that it depicts something 'real' but fact that our interpretation of its meaning must be true too. For me, an image is just a dance, a play of light and colour and shape - it is entirely ephemeral. That is its magic, that is its relief. It is NOT real, NOT something that needs to be processed through the usual channels, assessed, categorised. It can be allowed to exist almost like a natural visual phenomenon, like a mirage or the northern lights. An image for me is a spectacle, an entertainment, a holding place in time, a mystery.'
Prescriptive visual traditions have prevailed in South Africa for the past century, at first in a parochial denial of modernism, and later in response to the unequivocal social concerns that contemporary art sought to foreground. The contemporary idioms that reveal and question the elements of perception in the interpretation of visual phenomena have often gone unnoticed. In the context of contemporary idioms, Schema seeks to convey the liberation of seeing and perceiving space both with and without the mediating prescriptions of perspective.
Exhibiting artists include Zander Blom, Wim Botha, Edson Chagas, Ian Grose, Samson Kambalu, Mawande Ka Zenzile, Moshekwa Langa, Mitchell Messina, Meleko Mokgosi, Serge Alain Nitegeka, Odili Donald Odita, Deborah Poynton, Robin Rhode, Hans Richter, Viviane Sassen and Guy Tillim.
The exhibition opens on Thursday 26 November, from 6-8pm.
The gallery is open throughout the holiday season, except on public holidays; hours are Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, and Saturday 10am to 1pm.
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