Brett Murray's ‘King’ is on auction on February 16. Picture: STRAUSS & CO
Brett Murray's ‘King’ is on auction on February 16. Picture: STRAUSS & CO

When Brett Murray, a standout even in a particularly bright lineup of star art students, won the grand Michaelis prize in his graduate year, 1983, his aesthetic route was defined: the court jester with the finest of touches; social consciousness to be articulated in the high precision of the artful object.

His master of fine arts a few years later was a riveting triumph, and the chunky cartoon characters to tread his career stage entered in all their metaphorical glory.

One of those, King — a delicious Ubu, rich of ridicule — is coming up for auction on February 16 at Strauss & Co’s contemporary art sale during the weekend’s Cape Town Art Fair. It’s a vivid marker. 

But even court comedians age. The question is whether they can keep up the jokes-with-a-sting, or at least continue calling them in an audience-tickling manner. Murray rightly put his trust in the polish and meticulousness of the artwork.

His new show, Hide, at the poncey Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, is a true-to-style comedic celebration, superbly stage-managed with the artist’s sharp tongue turned somewhat inward, the players and settings crafted to the finest of rigour.

The serious big-boy toys that have followed him from his inventive years at art school have now to fulfil other roles in a particularly stressful time for jokers that hold rulers to ransom. 

This time they are polished, literally and figuratively, in the media of grandeur and rich collectors: marble, bronze and shine. This time they have to spell out significance, play the game, in the means of their making.

When Murray painted the infamous The Spear of the exposed Jacob Zuma in his 2012 Hail to the Thief show, it seemed that the spell of the jester may have been broken. Had it become a victim to a new local world order in which irony had evaporated and its sister, satire, had become a victim of decolonisation?

Murray had become, well, “disrespectful” and “dangerous”. The heat of his social anger was burning too harshly, its flames too high. Politicians could scratch in the ashes, and a crazy paint-thrower could have a moment in the spotlight. Danger, of course, can come from many directions.

It must have been something of a turning point for Murray, who, in a distinguished career, had been a skilled player at upsetting the game in crafty, cerebral ways. (Satire is not for sissies.)

 He feels no restriction to the media he may employ (and he has experimented marvellously), as long as the final product has the finish of excellence. He inherited a remarkable sculptural consciousness from his Michaelis mentor, Bruce Arnott, and has continually explored the three-dimensional dynamics of the goofy figures that seem to have a direct line to our consciousness. He has mastered the immediacy of the classic cartoon and its emotional and cerebral trigger. The key, he realises, is the precision of form and line.

In Hide it is all there. And what a delight it is.

One walks around the skilfully lit and presented Solace, and the Carrara marble sculpture of the twinned, entwined white animals elicits its own glow of sadness, insecurity and vulnerability. The form is in perfect three-dimensional mirror balance, giving the squatness and the weight of the stone an uncanny presence. 

Murray’s wordy wit, one that often gives his titles multiple ambiguous twists, hangs gently in the air around Hide. A highly polished bronze sculpture of the same title plays a delightful hide-’n-seek with pomp and monument.

Hide could also mean escaping from or covering up follies of a fractured society — in the company of comedy where chubby frogs, elephants and other animals are monuments of a 2019 Animal Farm. Those with thin or thick skins tread wearily around them.

A key part of the exhibition, which includes wall pieces in clever iterations of incised plastic panels, plays havoc with what the catalogue essayist Tim Leibbrandt calls current “hashtag-friendly, Instagram revolutionary rhetoric” that hides “self-serving populism”.

This is fearless Murray at his boldest.

Yet, as Leibbrandt also remarks, there seems to be a strong turn to the personal — which brings a particular poignancy to some of the funnies.

Of course the jester too will have doubts, and the Disney Suicide series is a dark Looney exit for the satirist in a stupid world. The Disney Suicide: Me pictures Goofy. What does that say?

Don’t miss Hide.          

• Hide is at Everard Read Cape Town until February 27. The Investec Cape Town Art Fair is from February 14-17.