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A Portrait of a Young Artist Series: A Portrait of a Young Artist Series: Producing Art(ists)

Text and photographs by Michaela Clark. Posted on December 11, 2014.

Esti Kruger, In Plain Sight

In amongst the various openings and events of this year's Cape Town Art Week, the 2014 graduating class of the Michaelis School of Fine Art found its launch both ideally timed and perfectly located. The work of this particularly large group of 58 graduate students was received by a vast audience of artists, art enthusiasts, and all those in between. In and amongst the hustle and bustle of the usual opening night chaos – accompanied by complimentary wine and nibbles of course – it was impossible to give the graduate's work their due time and consideration. Even after another visit (or two) an attempt to summarise or aggregate the collection spread across the Hiddingh Campus buildings of the University of Cape Town remains an impossible objective. So, instead, this is an attempt to touch on individual bodies of work and definitive thematic 'moments' that have appeared and reappeared across this year's graduating class.

The image of the familiar and the familial is one that resonates through much of the graduate show. From the Michaelis Gallery's attic space shared by the collaged (re)constructions of Sitaara Stodel in Home is where the House is and the frayed, decaying linens of Great Expectations: A Lover's Discourse by Sylvia Rossouw, to the unearthed and repurposed floorboards of Amy Engelbrecht's Behind the façade and the plummeting furniture of Gail Gunston's Dis(Place)Ment, the works prove indicative of both a disillusionment and nostalgic longing for that fantasy of the Rockwellian family home. Delving deeper into the surreal and symbolic environment that is the home, Esti Kruger's eerily drooping lamps of In Plain Sight and the decaying flowers and floating wooden frames in Amy Lester's Here is a Home additionally render the experience of domesticity ever more strange.

Jacqueline Baker, My States of Ruin (with detail)

In a similar vein to these monuments to the perishable nature of discarded domestic bliss lies the recurring nod to the Memento Mori and Vanitas tradition in this year's exhibition. Whether directly referenced within the paintings of Alice Toich's The Present, or more synthetically so in the sugar wallpaper of Jacqueline Baker's My States of Ruin and the fruit-stained surfaces of Julia Buchanan's Guilded Guilt (whose impressive chandelier of lace and wilted flowers is sadly no longer on display), the works palpably speak to mortality, vanity, and decay. In the case of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Jana Terblanche, it is the abject nature of celebrity, beauty, femininity, and fame that is forced to speak more of the inevitability of death and decay than of wealth or life.

In comparison to these rather expansive themes within this vast exhibition, the Michaelis show is peppered with exquisitely crafted works and installations that appear to celebrate the artwork as finished and finite object or product. In particular, Leila Walter's three-dimensional dreamscape BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA and Michaelis Prize winner Julian Gasson's Seachange showcase a meticulous handling of material and presentation in their respective bodies of work. Similarly, Lucienne Bestall's facsimiles of both art historical text books and iconic artworks (with direct references to LeWitt, Kosuth, and Duchamp) is indicative of an almost obsessive attention in the painstaking recreation of the art object and the commercial, reproducible product in her Some Art History. Most obvious in this interrogation, however, is 9 to 5 + overtime (2014) by Sharné McDonald, whose attempt to patent her work challenges both the notion of 'invention' and the ownership, value, and ontological difference between art-making and product(ion).

Julian Gasson, Seachange (left) and Sharne McDonald, 9 to 5 (right)

While the curation of the Michaelis exhibition quite successfully manages to create both an aesthetic and thematic flow within the various and varying spaces within Hiddingh's grounds, the integration of work occasionally makes it difficult to separate one graduate's art from that of another. In other unhappy instances such as that of Hiddingh Hall, the scorched sculptures of Lungiswa Gqunta become overshadowed and are rendered almost redundant in the sea of quirky and uncanny stuffed animals featured in Emily Robertson's What if Joseph was better at making school lunches? Surrounded by the bouncing frankensteined toys of Robertson, Gqunta's The Home of Residue struggles to resonate within the space despite the impressive size and emotive power of this work.

Despite some of these moments and one or two overly literal and somewhat under-edited collections, this year's Michaelis graduate exhibition is due a visit and certainly worth spending a bit of extra time to hunt down hidden gems such as the almost inaccessible Molded by Beatrice van Soelen in the passages of the Rosedale building, Zayaan Farouk's AFK installed in the Commerce building's Garrett Studio, and Suraya Pelser's easily overlooked photobook MEZZANINE in the ground floor passageway of the Michaelis building.

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