Karin Preller Family Album 2001 | Art.co.za | Art in South Africa
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Family Album 2001 | Absa Gallery Johannesburg

These paintings form part of an installation of twenty one paintings completed in 2001. The paintings are based on photographs of my family, taken from the 1940s to the 1960s, mainly in Johannesburg and on vacation. Family photographs, by their very familiarity, often transcend the personal in that they evoke a sense of shared experience of a specific time and place (in this case mainly of white, middle-class families of that era). Apart from the fact that a certain era may be recognizable to the viewer, the photographs are also similar, in the poses, compositions and conventions, to those in every other photo album.

Painting is as much the subject matter of these works as the chosen iconography. The surface itself – the ambiguity of the ‘trace of the real’ produced by the camera and the ‘reality’ of the painted canvas – becomes both the ‘site’ and the ‘sight’ of a physical engagement with personal memories. Illusionistic painting effectively conceals the painted mark – the usual evidence of the painter’s presence. It is the initial absence of this presence, and the resultant difficulty to define the work, which, I suggest, is enigmatic and opens the space for viewer projection.

Part of the intention was that the viewer might, upon initially viewing the works, perceive them as being enlarged photographs/snapshots. Only on closer examination will the labour or ‘skill’ necessary to create this initial perception be noticeable. The viewer reads them first as photographs, then as paintings. This presents the question as to why the artist would render images by hand instead of simply enlarging them. I see part of the affective potential for the work as located in the viewer’s awakening to the fact that they have been laboriously painted. The obsessiveness of the labour involved in the creation of the initial illusion, and the apparent ‘futility’ of rendering by hand that which could easily have been achieved by simply enlarging snapshots, arguably shifts the viewer’s reading of the images. Kathryn Smith, in a review of the work, articulates this as follows:

These paintings reveal more about what photography ‘leaves out’ (a problematic in much contemporary art practice) than if one were to employ photography itself to this same end. I say this because there is something uncomfortable about the space you sense lies between the original photograph and Preller’s resurrection of its image as a monochromatic painting (www.artthrob.co.za/01mar/reviews/html).

An image never fully ‘makes visible’ the narrative of which it is only a fragment. It can only create associations with what is not shown, opening up a space where memory is recovered, and altering the initial perception of the image. Where the image stops is where memory begins. Meaning, therefore, is not intrinsic to the image. It is produced by the viewer in the associations that he or she may make when looking at the images. As noted by Penny Siopis (2001, in an essay ‘Home movies. A document of a South African life’):

It seems to me that there is no archive that is wholly mine, or wholly not mine. Histories cross, and relating is important and probably something I could not live without. Art, sometimes quite antagonistically, takes someone’s life and makes something else out of it. In this sense it can be reckless and risky. But art is the most productive place I can think of for this to happen.

Writing on one of the paintings of a photograph taken by a street photographer in Johannesburg (Joburg ArtCity project), Mike Alfred (Sunday Times Lifestyle, September 2002) comments:

Occupying three levels of the Kazerne parking exit of Queen Elizabeth Bridge, Karin Preller offers a grey canvas which shows two women family members Rienie and Petronella, Johannesburg 1950s. Fashionably dressed in the “new look”, as was customary then for a trip into “town”, they were probably shopping. The Lightbody’s (gentlemen’s outfitters) sign is clearly visible.

The painting uses as inspiration an old photo taken by a street photographer. He might possibly have been a rare downtown dark businessman. The two women shopped in a “protected” space in which other races were not absent, but largely invisible. Stuttafords, Ansteys, and John Orrs were exclusive, where haughty, formally costumed shop assistants looked down their narrow white noses. Black people heaved the goods behind the scenes. The picture exudes white nostalgia:

“Let’s take a tram into town this morning; we’ll shop and lunch and then take in a matinee at the Colosseum.” It depicts a world forever gone, certainly not recaptured in Joburg’s magnificent, laager-like, shopping malls. As does Schadeberg, Preller jolts us with remembered history.

Michael Coulson (Financial Mail, 23 February 2001:149) writes:

Preller reproduces on large scale old black and white family album photos, dating from the forties to sixties, of Chris and Rienie Venter and their family. But the more you study this microcosm of white middle-class suburbia, of low brick walls, red polished stoeps, holidays at ‘Toti and men who wouldn’t be seen dead in public without a trilby hat, the more enigmatic it becomes. Who are the unidentified bit-players who flit in and out? Who is Chris’ tennis partner, so like him they could be brothers? Above all, why is Doris, who married John van Zyl, ten years later walking arm in arm with Willie Overbeek, looking very much part of a couple?

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