“Thinking, Feeling, Head, Heart”

102 New Church Street, Tamboerskloof
December 2–April 25

Kevin Atkinson, Thinking, Feeling, Head, Heart, c.1976, oil on canvas, 5’ 6” x 5’ 6”.

The history of painterly abstraction in South Africa remains atomized and fragmentary in part because of lingering animosities about its bland rehearsal of an imported style and, decisively perhaps, its inability to visualize the struggle against apartheid, which prompted curators and publishers to bypass the abstract in favor of social-realist and agitprop work. This exhibition, rather than recapitulating history, offers a selective survey of this overlooked genre and draws predominantly from the holdings of the New Church Museum. Guest curator Marilyn Martin named this show after a billowing black-and-white composition, Thinking, Feeling, Head, Heart, ca. 1976 by Kevin Atkinson, a former teacher of Marlene Dumas. It hangs in a room adjacent to the entrance and next to the show’s oldest work, an atypical jumble of black calligraphic marks titled Abstract on White and Blue from 1957 by Walter Battiss.

Martin eschews chronology in favor of juxtaposing works by first- and second-wave abstract painters with recent works by contemporary artists. Sometimes this strategy yields insightful results, as in the pairing of two untitled Ernest Mancoba drawings, dated c. 1970s and 1993 respectively, with a paper sculpture sutured with ribbons and rubber tubes by Nicholas Hlobo titled Andilibali Okwendlovu, 2008. The curatorial conceit is resisted, though, by works such as Dineo Seshee Bopape’s installation Uncontested Metaphor, 2013, an asymmetrical piece of fabric accompanied by a work on paper and a length of rope that is essentially modular in form. Along with Gerda Scheepers’s Medium and Modality Piece [Speak Easy], 2013, a uniformly blue canvas with fabric embellishments featuring rudimentary marks and displayed as a sculpture, these two cryptic and magnetic works are the unexpected highlights, as both artists have produced singular works that refuse company or comparison.

Sean O’Toole

“Hong Kong Bestiary”

Wing Tai Road, Chai Wan, Unit 601 Chai Wan Industrial City Phase 1 60,
November 29–February 28

MAP Office, Moving Sideways, 2010–14, HD video, photographs, wood, 94 x 47”.

As a selfish species, humans use animals either as figures of idolatry or as didactic placeholders in morality tales by anthropomorphizing them for our whims and purposes. In this exhibition of ten Hong Kong–based artists, a relationship of animal species as dominated by human need is questioned through the show’s examination of a multitude of stories, theories, and texts, ranging from Plutarch’s ethical diatribe against eating animal flesh to Chuang Tzu’s theory of animals being beyond consciousness and thus spiritually superior.

An exegesis of such texts manifests loosely in works such as Cedric Maridet’s photography series “Aura,” 2014, in which he captures night portraits of wildlife looking straight at the camera lens as well as at the human behind it. Adrian Wong’s installation consists of two bespoke hutches designed by his pet rabbits, Michael and Ernesto, via a telepathic animal communicator. The rabbit domiciles also face a video, Scavenger, 2008, which features a cardboard replica of the HSBC lion as fashioned by Yuk King Tan. Rendered in a usually cheap yet contextually coveted material—elderly scavengers roam the streets of Hong Kong collecting cardboard for a small fee—the sculpture in the video is a commentary on the wealth gap and the divided perception of value in this city. Elsewhere, Kacey Wong pays homage to his cat in a shrine-like series of portraits and a sculpture crafted from recycled wood. The duo of MAP Office shows Moving Sideways, 2010–14, a UV-lighted shack that houses a television screening crab movements shot in nighttime mode. At floor level around the shack, there are drawings of sandy remnants of the crustacean’s sideways scuttling.

By deconstructing the human-centric focus of aesthetics, questions of future homogeneity arise. For instance, can the Anthropocene be undone?

Ysabelle Cheung

Taysir Batniji

Tannous Building, 4th Floor, Street 56 Jisr Sector 77
January 13–March 7

Taysir Batniji, Untitled (Imperfect Lovers), 2013, neon, 41 x 20”.

Taysir Batniji’s exhibition spreads across half of the gallery’s industrial space, marking a territory of Minimal objects ranging from soap to photographs to a set of glass keys. At the entrance is a neon sign, Untitled (Imperfect Lovers), 2013, displaying the encircled Arabic words Tharwa and Thawra. A word play between the similarly spelled terms for “wealth” and “revolution,” this juxtaposition provides the dichotomy between politically charged content and austere formalism that permeates the show.

Another room displays photographs of Israeli military watchtowers in three separate grids for Watchtowers, 2008. Though reminiscent of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s taxonomies, the imperfect aesthetic of Batniji’s photographs, shot from slightly off-center vantage points and sometimes out of focus, and their light pink frames point to a break from the straightforward style of the Bechers. Is this a subversion of the panoptical gaze of the Israeli state or just a way of documenting a particular place and time?

Visual tropes of Conceptual and Minimal art are tricky since photographic installations, neon, and site-specificity can become tropes. When Batniji utilizes this language, it leans toward being disengaged from the content that he is dealing with—martyrdom, displacement, and occupation—making it almost anonymous. Perhaps this gap between what is intended and what is actually realized is not dissimilar to the neon work at the show’s beginning, seemingly local in its use of Arabic yet cloaked by a Western visual sensibility reminiscent of Joseph Kosuth’s neon works. The residual impression here is a tension between the desire to make a change, to revolutionize, and a purely illustrative gesture toward that intention, when the transformation into action just does not happen.

Merve Unsal

Benjamin Senior

Unit 24, Alserkal Avenue, Street 8, Al Quoz 1, Exit 43 - SZR
January 12–February 21

Benjamin Senior, Rings VIII (Parade), 2014, oil on linen, 47 x 59”.

A quest for perfection is at the heart of Benjamin Senior’s “Enclosure” exhibition, featuring meticulous depictions of healthy-looking people exercising, walking in nature, or performing other wholesome activities. Formally trained in figurative painting, Senior utilizes materials and methods from the Italian Renaissance in a fresh way, while European modern artists from the 1930s, such as Fernand Léger and Oskar Schlemmer, inform his rendering of the human body. The artist’s experimentation in egg tempera on linen lead to larger versions in oil paint, as in the case of Two Walkers on Beacon Hill, 2014, which acts as a preparatory step toward Three Walkers on Beacon Hill (Spring), 2014, both on view here in his first solo exhibition in the Middle East.

While Senior’s figures owe much to his regular observation of people and to drawing from life, which he favors over photography, equally significant are the digitally generated geometric patterns and motifs added to his 2014 “Rings” series. Incorporated as curvy roti grills in the foreground or as colored floor designs in the background of these paintings depicting hula hoopers in New York parks, the patterns further complicate the bodies’ relationship to the environments in which they are carefully situated. Installed on the entrance walls—except for Rings VIII (Parade), the largest oil-on-linen work, which is centrally hung on the facing wall—this multilayered series may initially seem to contrast with Senior’s portrayal of English landscapes in other paintings, posing an urban-rural dichotomy. Yet the artist’s focus on movement and energy is common as each work captures and encloses bodies in a structured world of form and representation.

L. İpek Ulusoy Akgül

José Morales

Carretera #1 Calle Francisco Sein, 2nd Floor, Rio Piedras
November 20–February 13

José Morales, Untitled, 1998, charcoal, oil stick, and graphite on paper, 44 x 30”.

A brooding pall hovers over “Demarcated,” an exhibition of thirty-nine of José Morales’s unframed and untitled drawings from 1993 to 2014. Depictions of predator and prey, marked time, trapped flies, and several monuments of a slumped, naked figure covering his or her face suggest oppression, solitude, confinement, and despair. But Morales also balances these troubling subjects with abstractions from 1997 and 1998, a drawing from 2002 that resembles a how-to diagram, and fields of tiny, obsessive squiggles from 2013 and 2014. The works reveal how the artist develops his ideas over time.

In this show, Morales’s gestures both define and traverse limits. He streaks, smudges, and lightly erases lines, or uses fixative to stabilize his medium and tone areas of the soft absorbent paper. Gridded drawings have drips and uneven traces, while images and shadows run off the edges of the paper. The artist’s range of marks in charcoal, graphite, gouache, oil stick, ink, latex, and adhesive tape is stunning. Bold, unrestrained, immediate expressions comfortably reside next to drawings with tight, exact lines. Untitled, 1998, which recalls the haunting atmospherics of Francisco de Goya’s “Black Paintings,” is exhibited alongside Untitled, 2013, a clean, precise drawing of a walking cane. Once, I saw a viewer caress their inviting, tactile surfaces. Dark fingerprints on several drawings indicate the artist’s own physical attachment to his works.

Agitated lines and drawings with texts written by the artist incorporated into them keep this exhibition crackling. When we read a Spanish phrase that translates to “I am going to rip your head off” above two innocuous dogs staring at the viewer, do we laugh or gasp?

Cheryl Hartup