New reflections on (slightly) old art
Stevenson Art Gallery celebrates in wide-ranging group exhibition, writes Melvyn Minnaar
As new and big money tightened its grip on the art world over the past two decades — squeezing expertise from traditional institutions such as museums and consigning products to the currency of status — the nature of art history shifted.
Two exhibitions celebrating local art gallery Stevenson’s 15 years in the business put an awkward spotlight on that shift. Under the typical post-modernist title "Both, and," it is a wide-ranging one-group show in two locations, Cape Town and Johannesburg.
The oddly enigmatic title suggests dynamic questions about art history and how a contemporary art business responds to and reflects it, say Sisipho Ngodwana and Alexander Richards — the curators and recently appointed directors of the art dealership. With the intent to visually illustrate the gallery’s history since its founding in 2003 and demonstrate its present perspective, the shows comprise "new and existing works by current gallery artists, by old friends and by new acquaintances".
In Cape Town, in specially revamped spaces, more than 50 artists’ works are on display. Included are the now required colourful outliers, representation from the rest of Africa, and works that mirror slinky sophistication. Labelling is bright and readable, punting the chronology behind the exposition and thankfully devoid of didactic bubble n speak.
The feeling is much like a smartly polished mini-art fair (a flourishing phenomenon in the big-money art world) which means there is a lot of visual fun to be experienced. These flashy exhibitions are often the best free entertainment in town.
The matter of art history may pass by casual visitors. Yet contemplating the gallery’s birthday introspection and the curators’ motivation exposes meaningful philosophical questions about art and its chronicles in today’s world.
Setting themselves the tricky task of navigating an apparent paradox, Ngodwana and Richards explain that the gallery has always been dedicated to art history and current discourse, but is also a place of commerce.
"A question that has been pivotal throughout the years is ‘how can we be both committed to art history, and fully engaged with the market?’," the exhibition’s brochure asks.
Does the old adage about the victor writing history hold up as well for those recording art and its signifiers today?
When gallerists and their rich collector-buyers have out-manoeuvred museum experts in the discourse, when dollars speak louder than expertise and insight, whose art history is written?
Maybe the paradox could be formulated differently: history is the past, marked by important signs (masterpieces and acknowledged invention); commerce is the present, graded by profit (market competition, such as publicised auctions). That the young curators broach the subject is laudable. It certainly comes with the territory.
Michael Stevenson Contemporary was established in 2003 in Green Point. By that time Stevenson was an acknowledged art historian with a fine eye on both the past and new market.
Its first exhibition, a clear marker in the gallery’s history, was an upbeat claim to a new approach to the business of art.
In 1988 Stevenson had written a nifty thesis, "The South African Art Index 1971-1998", towards a degree in business science at the University of Cape Town (UCT). And in 1997, he completed "Old masters and aspirations: The Randlords, art and SA" for a doctorate. Reworked, it was published by Fernwood Press in 2002 as a superb coffee table book.
A year later he opened the gallery in Green Point and the first exhibition encapsulated Stevenson’s interest in the old and its link to the new (anticipating the current paradoxical question) with the challenging title, "Contact Zones: Colonial & Contemporary". Among the work on the show were some "oldies" that could do with new attention and work to touch a contemporary nerve.
Among the new work was Diane Victor’s powerful, large charcoal drawing, Pasiphaë — specially reworked from an earlier version for the exhibition. It was later acquired by UCT and put on display, only to be hidden from view, in the notorious art witch-hunt of April 2016.
This power of art had been present from the start in Stevenson’s commercial venture: an obvious consciousness that the works trade within a particular historical or cultural milieu.
The dynamic of the new Michael Stevenson Contemporary was professionally polished. It introduced a new era of sensitive art and artist management to the Mother City. The blueprint was the glitz and confidence of international art dealers, and anticipated the art fair era which was to come.
The gallery was one of the first to eye "alternative art" beyond the traditional white-Western paradigm, and promoted it among collectors. Young, enthusiastic staff helped. The global art world was just getting to feel the run of the nouveau riche tickled by the art-collecting itch.
In 2008 the premises moved to the new art hub of Woodstock, and the name abbreviated. An outpost was established in Johannesburg, to which the title "Both, and" kind of refers.
It is a pleasure to see art in this exhibition by the names that became famous, or more famous, under the Stevenson imprint: The Frontier with Church installation by Jane Alexander; Wim Botha’s famous Mieliepap-Piëta; some of the late David Goldblatt’s magnificent images from Intersections Intersected; Deborah Pointer’s swashbuckler painting Traders; and, a highlight, a miniretrospective of Zanele Muholi’s groundbreaking photographs.
There is keen art spread over the two venues, by among others Steven Cohen, Nicholas Hlobo, Pieter Hugo, Anton Kannemeyer, Songezile Madikida, Nandipha Mntambo, Wangechi Mutu, Odili Donald Odita, Viviane Sassen, Claudette Schreuders, Berni Searle, Lerato Shadi and Kemang Wa Lehulere.
Group shows operate to different dynamics, and dealing with so many (famous or now well-known) names has its own curatorial challenge.
In the end, it is presentation and illumination that drives the viewer experience. That experience is enjoyable and pretty uplifting. Never mind that paradoxical conundrum.
The exhibition closes on August 21 in Cape Town and on August 24.in Johannesburg