Nostalgia with a cool head: Karin Preller's Stilled Lives
Arguably, Karin Preller is at this moment one of South Africa's most collectible artists. She's firmly in a mid-career trajectory, her work is uniformly exceptional and her prices are not (yet) skyrocketing. Also, her pieces are about a heady mix of skill, nostalgia and beauty.
Like Lacan's danicing sardine can...
Karin Preller's enigmatic latest exhibition, Just Above the Mantlepiece, relishes in the smooth surface appearance of ordinary, lowly things. A series of carefully painted photorealisic still lifes, composed with kitsch trinkets, toys, dolls, Afrikana, plastic-seeming glassware and artist's tools - the exhibition continues Preller's exploration of the ambiguous lives and love of dead things.
Just above the mantelpiece: an interview
In a quirky take on the 18th- and 19th century It-narrative (recounting of the adventures of a non-human protagonist), a literary craze often dominated by the doings of bits of currency (half-pennies, shillings and sovereigns abounded), the opening paragraphs of Londoner Mary Mister’s The Adventures of a Doll read like a manifesto for the entire genre. With vanitas commentary to make Flemish painting from two centuries back jealous, Mister sets up the Doll of the title for a tragic fall, as, it could be argued, must betide every shiny new object, inanimate or otherwise. ‘In a large shop, in the great metropolis of the British empire, I first opened my eyes on this changeful scene of life; and as the days of youthful beauty and vanity are now over, I may be allowed to describe, for the amusement of my readers, those charms which so long attracted the admiration of every youthful passenger. My face was fair as the finest wax could make it; a bloom, resembling the down of a peach, was spread over my cheeks; my eyes were soft blue of a summer’s sky, now opening with animating brightness, and now closing with languishing softness… But my greatest charm was that peculiar expression of superior understanding, which enables me to recount this my eventful history…’
Melville-based Karin Preller is fairly well-known for trawling the collective Johannesburg memory through her quasi-photoreal paintings generated from old family snapshots and magazine photos. ‘Just above the mantelpiece’, her latest show at ArtSpace in Parkwood ventures into the realm of still life. But it’s still-life with a twist, as the paintings are generated from photographs of still lives. Meanwhile, the stoic, mute authority of the curios, figurines and bibelots in Preller’s finely-wrought works seems a foil to the busy street outside the gallery, and indeed to a trash culture in which so little is kept and so much is binned. [Source]
1996: Michael Coulson. Dramatic debut. Financial Mail, September 6.
Shades of Grey: Karin Preller at the ABSA Gallery (March 2001)
I like this exhibition despite myself. While I make a point of shying away from ‘artfulness’ in art, there is something attractive about these quite artful images: their overall sameness, apparent impenetrability of surface and a disturbing erasure of Preller’s brush (they look airbrushed but aren’t) are the things that clever ruses are made of. From a distance they look like dated black and white photographs. Up close, you wonder why. There is a total lack of detail, Preller instead filtering the image into areas of stark tonal contrast.
Her rationale mentions her desire to focus attention on the labour of painting, especially in relation to images that can be reproduced in more economic or technologically sophisticated ways. The reconstruction of memory, the publicizing of the private familial ‘look’ and the banal are all stated as aspects of her research. She also speaks of the ‘blind spots’ of memory, existing in – or outside – the frame of the image, observing that painting may have the ability to draw these out.
In relation to the work on the exhibition, this is all pretty pedestrian. Shoot me for being cynical, but give any contemporary artist (especially a South African one) a family photograph to deconstruct and they’ll churn out similar discourse as if by rote. The exploration into photography’s relationship to truth, memory and ‘the personal’, and by extension, the reconstruction and recovery of memory has been explored by two consecutive Vita prizewinners, namely Jo Ractliffe and Terry Kurgan, albeit in different ways. These paintings, sometimes toned with the yellow or greenish glaze to simulate age, operate on different levels.
These paintings may reveal more about what photography ‘leaves out’ (a popular thematic 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.
She selects her images carefully. If one pays attention to the titles, we can trace certain people from childhood to adulthood, and a family home through several decades. But she also makes sure to include images that reveal the technical shortfalls of either the photographer or the equipment (vignetting and poor focus) or photographs stamped ‘Final Proof’ from professional photographic studios.
This, along with the lack of details, speaks to the standards of domestic photography at the time (between the early 1940s and the 1960s), an era where the documentation of family was usually the role of the father. There are two kinds of images here: the posed, either formally or informally, and those that mark occasions, whether it’s shopping downtown or at a dinner. Throughout, details implicitly reveal the Calvinism informing this particular familial masquerade. Gloves are worn when shopping and people are seen to occupy roles that don’t challenge the expected. The banal, and the style of execution which is strangely devoid of personality, seem to make public a conservatism that is difficult to identify specifically, but it is pervasive.
This show could suffer from two things: a too earnest attachment to academic and well-worn readings of family, memory and the attention she focuses between the ‘labour’ of painting and the ‘ease’ of photography. Secondly, painting lessens the effect of voyeurism on the part of the viewer by playing down the affect of the ‘real’. As such, we don’t question issues of representational responsibility. I did leave feeling quite ambivalent, but also thinking that Preller, for all the fetishising of painting’s authenticity and uniqueness, had rather neatly inverted a well-known notion from Roland Barthes’ seminal Camera Lucida: “What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” It seems that Preller, through painting, has reinvested these images with some sense of the existential that has less to do with her stated interest in how families masquerade, and more to do with trying to recapture something of the original moment when the image was taken.
Website of South African Artists