By Keren Bauman
AVA, Cape Town
01.09.2016 – 01.10.2016
The saying, enough is enough, is what comes to mind after viewing the collaborative exhibition ‘Half Light and Shadow’ by Jill Trappler and Eunice Geustyn. The violent heavily symbolic content of Geustyn’s work comes together with the psychological abstract work by Trappler in confusing contrast and unresolved paradox. ‘Half Light and Shadow’ shows that which is seen but unresolved in society alongside that which is heard and felt but rarely explored. There is an unfamiliar intermixing of styles, like a social experiment, which disorientates viewers. The disjunction between the two different styles and intent of the exhibition could say something about society at large: the way individuals manage to cope with the harsh realities by occupying the mind with meditative thoughts.
Geustyn’s work – hard, heavy, and violent in content -deals with issues of female abuse, rape, child abuse and the loss of innocence. Her mixed-media works distract the viewer with its intricate details and textural backgrounds. One is seduced and distracted by the use of watercolour, wood, medical suture, faded out maps and calligraphy on granulated paper and then smacked in the face by the violent message. This two-fold experience occurs once one becomes aware of the seductiveness of the artworks’ material value. This is like the media which produces stories and images of abuse in, often, over sentimentalised ways, which incite sympathy, but do little to change the action of society. The richness of texture seen in Geustyn’s work, is in many ways, metaphoric of recorded history: the lines and marks of South Africa’s violent history are like a tattoo which remain on the skin and shape the way society operates, sees and understands the world.
The ironic phrases written in Geustyn’s series The Third Girl –also a statistic that one in three girls is raped – emphasises the commonplaceness of the terms: “no means yes”; “have a drink” and “boys night out”. Her work brutally depicts these scenes with recognisable visual references; like two male figures, seen from behind, standing over an anonymous female figure. These phrases which frequently appear in the media, in connection with rape and abuse, are written in the centre of broken cogs, while each image has a different, almost, theatrical scene of rape. The ease at which the eye recognises these scenes, says something disturbing about the proliferation of rape and the ease of seduction both for the victims of abuse and the media’s ability to detach us from such images. Geustyn then layers into these image grainy textures like medical suture, and a ghostly hand print which disrupt the viewer, sending shivers down one’s spine at the thought of being stitched back together. The vulnerability of flesh is chilling as each image manages to invigorate the harsh reality of abuse.
Drawing a Line in the Sand is an installation which brings the exhibition off the walls of the gallery and onto the floor. Displayed scattered along a trail of sand are 23 7000 medical vials, some of which contain labels with words in them, whilst others have been stepped on and broken, forming part of the grains of sand. The number represents the amount of reported cases of child abuse a year in South Africa. The work entices the viewer to step over the sand, and engage with the words written in the vials. For the viewer, this becomes an embodied recognition to the statics which otherwise lie, far-removed in news articles.
The repetition of oval shapes, broken cogs (perhaps representing a dysfunctional society) and the serial are motifs in Geustyn’s work for the never ending cycle of rape and abuse. The recurrent, cyclical value is reinforced by the forty Victorian styled, funerary labels entitled When is Enough Enough? The top five labels, of the forty, have the engraved names of women who were brutally raped and murdered. The rest of the labels have the words “and another” repeated in each of them. Like the circular cogs, the repetition suggests that these horrific acts of violence are not over. Perhaps the artist hopes to make these harsh realities felt, and by bringing the stories and statistics to light in ways which confront the viewers stability it will make them realise that this is not as far removed as they think.
This repetitive layering is one thing in common between the artists. The grid-like structure, at the base of Trappler’s work has multiple layers of vertical and horizontal lines worked over it. Through the repeated structure one finds a sense of sequence and through the intentionally large scale a sense of the incomprehensible. The vastness and depth of one’s inner feelings, hard to reach and uncover are explored. Trappler’s work seduces one in ways necessary, as a comprehensive space to think about one’s personal responses to social issues such as rape. Her work creates a space in which the viewer can comprehend the shocking facts spotlighted in Geustyn’s work.
My reading of her work is foregrounded in the abstract art of one of the most well-known artists, Kandinsky. Through seeing Kandinsky’s representations of music one realises there is no formula to visually show music, but it is possible to use marks and colours in an attempt to express the way that music makes one feel. Likewise, Trappler, attempts to construct a visual language, capable of communicating the intangible. In her use of oils on canvas, she manages to transform this traditional medium from the controlled, formal representations most frequently seen in oil, to non-representational and personal expressions. These ideas also relate to Geustyn in that, similar to Kandisnky, she transforms the sensitive, hard to express subject matter into provoking prints.
In Trappler’s large scale, abstract art, she attempts to reconstitute the meaning found in art, by using pattern and colour as opposed to mimicking nature. Her art is psychological, and attempts to explore the viewer’s relationship with visual images, by creating an abstract visual form she asks the viewer to make meaning of the varying lines, tones and colours without relying on any representational form. One cannot help but read this psychological aspect in relation to the material reality of facts, represented in Geustyn’s work. At first this suggestion may appear to be a stretch, but once one takes the time to see, feel and understand how visual culture need not be as fixed as we first assume it should be, there is valuable aesthetic insight to be gained from this unusual pairing. Insight that questions our understanding of art in our image-saturated world which instead of making us masters of the visual through our exposure to images actually, blinds us from the true power visual experiences can have.
Trappler’s artworks seem to investigate the layers which make up the mind, choosing to focus on feeling as opposed to logic of the mind. The alliterated title of the artwork Light-lee shows the loose configurations of a grid. The horizontal format coupled with the flow of shapes from blocks to spontaneously curved, overlapping marks reads almost as its own visual language. Like words written on a page from left to right, the viewer tries to decipher what they see, almost convincing themselves that the patterns are some form of made up hieroglyphic-type language. Eventually one understands that Trappler’s paintings are not intended to be deciphered by the tools we so frequently use to decode images. Instead her art lies in limbo, a space between formal imagery with an intended meaning, (like images in the media) and a serious exploration of the power of the eyes in constructing meaning and feeling.
The tonal hues of indigo appear fluid and spontaneous. This is similar both to the colours seen at twilight as well as the unexpected things we might happen to see through this vague light at twilight. This contrast of seen versus unseen relates to Geustyn’s work which explores the violent acts that most often occur out of sight to the public. Trappler looks at the feelings which are hard to acknowledge and even harder to express to others. The artist creates personal, visceral responses to the way she experiences the world. But these paintings are part of a network of society in which their meaning is adapted, shifted and re-established as a new object of meaning. Taken out of the artist’s studio and put into an exhibition the paintings take on new meaning, and forge new understandings, which is part of the trajectory of her work: instead of being like a taboo image in the newspaper her artwork aims to be far reaching and memorable after the show. Perhaps if the images we were confronted with on a daily basis were as deeply memorable people would think before they act.
Matrix, a 152 x 250 cm canvas, is made with multiple layers, colours and textural details creating a sequence of pattern, colour and depth. She creates visual harmony in the soft tones of indigo. These colours are intuitively consoling as the varying hues provide restful spaces for the eyes. This is another similarity between the two artists: the way the visual, can seduce, repel, attract and tease the viewer’s perception. Trappler, a renowned weaver, seems to recreate the weaving process with her lines, but the controlled order of weaving, is given new symbolic freedom in her paintings. The freedom to reconfigure how we deal with pain and the choices we make as individuals to bring an end to this horrific cycle of abuse.
In coming full circle, the abstract paintings coupled with the mixed media works show the contradiction between light and shadow. The intangibility of a shadow, the light induced reflection is something which is symbolically dealt with in Geustyn’s work. In making the shadows of stories real it forces the viewer to interact with these cold facts. More importantly the exhibition provides an environment where one does not feel like a victim, one is not annihilated by the images but rather forced to accept the emotional rollercoaster of violence and the contradictions between facts and feelings. One can know something but not feel it and this show forces the detachment of rape into the realm of emotions and in so doing highlights the victimization of rape and the way it is perceived in society. This exhibition asks the viewers to take a stand, and draw a line in the sand, enough is enough.