Fresh paint: Sarah Biggs’s Eventide, is part of the New Romantics exhibition — which explores a revival of romanticism — at the Barnard Gallery in Cape Town. Picture: SUPPLIED
Fresh paint: Sarah Biggs’s Eventide, is part of the New Romantics exhibition — which explores a revival of romanticism — at the Barnard Gallery in Cape Town. Picture: SUPPLIED

Alexia Vogel’s art is pretty. It’s not only the pink-toned palette that lends her painting this quality but also her style and subject matter. Mountains, valleys, rivers and other bucolic settings are her focus, which she renders in a soft, floaty manner.

Since conceptualism fell out of favour, painting has been revived and art has increasingly become "prettier". This has led to a trend in local art that could be called romanticism.

It is a fitting label for artists such as Vogel and contemporaries including Sarah Biggs, Zarah Cassim, Ruby Swinney and Heidi Fourie, who are interested in depicting nature.

Like Vogel, Biggs evokes nature through a colour palette and brushstrokes suggesting organic matter rather than definite features of a rural landscape or vegetation.

In the past, she planted small figures in her compositions to indicate the grand scale of the mountains and rivers. More recently she has presented portraits of people immersed in nature, clearly swayed by its psychic effects.

Marcus Neustetter’s Exploring 1950s. Picture: SUPPLIED
Marcus Neustetter’s Exploring 1950s. Picture: SUPPLIED

Fourie’s painting style is less airy-fairy; her gestures are solid and bold. Yet she imbues water, rocks and other natural phenomena with a sense of grandeur. This is romanticism.

For the first time in SA, an exhibition dedicated to this apparent revival will be staged at the Barnard Gallery in Cape Town. Entitled New Romantics, it refers not only to the 1980s movement featuring gender-bender pop stars in frilly shirts but a painterly (and literary) movement in the late 1800s.

The artists participating in the group exhibition — Vogel, Fourie, Biggs, Robyn Penn, Katherine Spindler, Rose Mudge, Marcus Neustetter and Ronel de Jager — do not identify themselves as "new romantic" painters.

Perhaps digging into nature and the transcendental experience it enables frees them up from "women’s art". Aside from Biggs, none of the artists in the exhibition depicts a female subject or any subjects in their art. Instead they exist (in their practice) as a powerful omnipotent presence, penetrating beyond the surface of the natural world, teasing out its invisible qualities.

In her Virus (2017) series, De Jager presents circular abstract works; the inside of an organism under a microscope, evoking the textures of organic material beyond sight.

The soft, hazy film through which a lone sheep in Spindler’s paintings is viewed is an alert to her subjective position — a world refracted through her internal, emotional lens.

Penn’s ink painting of a cloud in which she attempts to deconstruct its structure is juxtaposed with her ubertraditional oil painting of one, demonstrating her ability to delve beyond appearances and create a luminous and desirable façade.

As they recreate the natural world the artists also allow themselves to enact a feminine aesthetic that is wispy, delicate and pink-toned.

Alexia Vogel’s River Run II. Picture: SUPPLIED
Alexia Vogel’s River Run II. Picture: SUPPLIED

Mudge’s glitter painting, The Vision (2017), which glistens and glows with "feminine shades", is inspired by a 1980s aesthetic that defines toys and accessories for young girls.

Instead of reproducing imagery evoking overdetermined ideas about femininity, she segues the aesthetic into an ambiguous space.

Her pure colour paintings open a threshold into a world beyond recognition of pure transcendence. It could be a nongendered space, an apolitical space. It could possibly even be a happy place — a space from which artists have traditionally recoiled. Serious art isn’t supposed to be happy or pretty, yet to be subversive as an artist could mean making work that satisfies both ends.

This romantic subject matter fulfils many other interesting social or political objectives. Within an art language, it presents the ideal space beyond the logic and reason of conceptualism and identity-driven art of the 1990s or noughties.

The painters’ work is also postgeographical; these natural places do not exist or refer to specific places. Neustetter’s quirky works, in which he attempts to map the spaces between stars on reclaimed 1950s celestial charts, presents this compulsion to pinpoint places beyond the naked eye.

He also exposes the limits and futility of coming to grips with the natural world. The results are maps full of colourful strands or squiggles that undercut scientific (and once colonial) efforts to name, claim and control nature.

Efforts to dominate and exploit nature have damaged the world and pose a threat to human existence. This awareness lends further gravitas to this romantic turn in painting, which redirects attention to the reliance on the natural world not only for physical survival, but also mental wellbeing.

The form of contemplation the figure in Biggs’s Eventide (2017) enjoys is clearly facilitated by the natural environment. It is rendered through the romantic aesthetic and opens up another space the romantics of yesteryear called the sublime.

All sorts of things, which cannot be explained or depicted visually, can be found in the exhibition. In leading viewers into an uncertain place, this generation of artists lives up to its romantic label.

• Corrigall is the curator of the New Romantics. The exhibition runs at the Barnard Gallery in Newlands, Cape Town until March 6. 

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