Melancholia is a soul-searching exhibition aptly displayed in a pathology museum - review by Chris Thurman

Business Day - review by Chris Thurman

Melancholia is a soul-searching exhibition aptly displayed in a pathology museum

At the Pathology Museum, UCT Pathology Learning Centre

I recently explored the University of Cape Town's Pathology Learning Centre. Tucked away in the labyrinth of buildings constituting the Health Sciences campus, in the shadow of the Groote Schuur Hospital complex, the centre is an Aladdin's Cave of medical history.

The former Pathology Museum, dating back to the construction of the medical school on the lower slopes of Devil's Peak in the 1920s, contains some fascinating records. Diligently compiled autopsy reports hint at the details of life stories even as they focus on bodies on the mortuary table. Black and white photographs that ostensibly served to document pathologies - the effects of syphilis, say - capture the humanity of their subjects in evocative portraits.

Most striking, however, are the shelves filled with specimens in various states of preservation: row upon row of organs, tissues, muscles, veins and nerves, resected and cross sectioned and lovingly captured in Perspex and formaldehyde.

They are all tagged and numbered, and one imagines how they might have been viewed with the detachment of medical students or researchers in years gone by.

But when you spend enough time with these bits of bodily detritus, in their amber casing that catches the light - and especially if you happen to glimpse some of the more discomfiting specimens through an open laboratory door - they cease to be mere biological matter.

What develops, beyond wonder at the human body in all its complexity and frailty, beyond curiosity at oversized or damaged or underdeveloped specimens (how did they come to look like that?), beyond shock or squeamishness, is a looming sense of sadness. Each post mortem that produced these body parts was the final act of a tragedy: a life that ended in grief and sorrow, or worse, anonymity and indifference.

Hovering over all this is the often grim history of medical science itself. From gruesome graveyard exhumations in the dead of night to experiments and autopsies conducted on those considered sub-human by certain forms of Western empirical enquiry (vagabonds, Jews, gays, Africans), scientific discoveries have often come at the expense of someone's dignity. It hardly needs emphasising that, even when they were ostensibly life-affirming medical advances in SA were made against the backdrop of - and to some extent were facilitated by - race based segregation and persecution. When, in 1967, heart transplant pioneer Chris Barnard was working in the very building that today houses the Pathology Learning Centre, a few kilometres away the apartheid government was passing the Terrorism Act in parliament and forcing people out of District Six.

For all these reasons, the centre is an apposite setting for the exhibition of Natasja de Wet's Melancholia (until March 30). This body of work seeks to give expression to the artist's own "experience of the melancholic disposition",

As De Wet explains in the catalogue text - a dense but insightful reflection on conceptions of melancholy that cites the work of theorists Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan, and draws art historical connections from Albrecht Dürer to Anselm Kiefer melancholia as a diagnosis dates to Hippocrates theory of the four "humours" developed in the 4th century BCE.

It has thus always been linked both to physiology and to a psychological state, understood simultaneously as temperament and an embodied "pathology" similar to those on display on the shelves that surround De Wet's work.

It is associated with the abject, like specimens of conditions to which the "healthy" individual is averse.

Yet, De Wet reminds us. melancholia is also associated with analysis and creativity; it is not the same as depressive paralysis, and can be "a generative mental and emotional state".

The works included in the exhibition evince the melancholic binary (the chiaroscuro) of "darkness and lightness". This is vividly executed in the main installation, in which paint-and dust-daubed canvases and sheets hang draped in the central atrium.

A number of the smaller works, however, convey the life-and-death conundrum with equal effect. One of my favourites is the layered canvas in Slivered Ball of Constriction, which calls to mind a pair of lungs such as one might see in a jar nearby, at the same time as bringing to the viewer's attention the materiality of art-making and the artist's process.


Running Towards Yourself review by Laura Twiggs

Review by Laura Twiggs - independent author, writer, editor. 

RUNNING TOWARDS YOURSELF is the product of artist Natasja de Wet's 18-month long, in-depth exploration into the fluidity, ambiguity and tensions at play in psychological constructions of personal and especially, gendered, identity. This series of portraits is also a response to the existentially reflexive conflict around where the Self is located during acts of looking. Where and what is the inner Self as it looks at the outside world? When it gazes inward? When it is passively the object of an Other’s gaze? And is it truly either wholly masculine or entirely feminine, all the time? De Wet probes these gender distinctions and questions their validity as accepted foundation stones of identity and ‘reality’, particularly as regards the workings of individual psyche. 

Since 2006, when she first discovered Psychophonetics (a method of examining and using verbal sounds to enhance self-awareness and create deeper meaning), De Wet has been particularly interested in the notion that there resides in us all both an 'inner male' and an 'inner female': fundamental aspects of shared human psychology that are no less dynamic and influential for being discouraged, disavowed or outright taboo. Begun in late 2011, this series of portraits thematically continues De Wet's abiding idea that individual human experience is essentially a ‘journey’ or process which, whether undertaken mindfully or not, daily entails forging an emotional relationship and understanding with the Self – a process that rests on the uneasy reconciliation between a multiplicity of “selves” (both male and female); interior and exterior realities; appearance and experience; what we are with others and on our own; how we are perceived by others and what and who we perceive others to be. 

Without titles and depicting instantly recognisable common human emotions, Running Towards Yourself is an invitation into primal territory – that fluid “elsewhere” lurking just beyond conscious thought where individual identity and self-knowledge originate. De Wet's multi-faceted raw self-delvings create a “universal face” and destabilise accepted formulations around our understanding of what it is to be human – what it is to say “I”, “You” and “We”. By dint of their number and that of the emotional states they represent, these portraits suggest that any notion of one “constant” or “true” “self” is a myth. Narrow linguistic constraints (such as “male” and “female”, “good” and “bad”) constrain and curb true self-knowledge and ultimately, cauterise and impoverish our experience and understanding of self. 

The evocative nature of the series is due in no small part to De Wet's use of colour to portray mood, emotion and her interior world. For her, each shade has personal rather than traditional significance and her selection process is intuitive: green represents mental calm, for example; purple and violet express sexuality, sadness and plumbing existential depths; red conveys warmth, pain and love; blue symbolises introspection and inner peace. Combined with her signature drip technique, strategic employment of blank canvas space and use of different applications of brushstroke, contrasts are bold and vibrant and compositions feature engaging tensions between dynamism and stasis, chaos and serenity, what is blatant and what is insinuated. 

The result is a body of work layered with pathos and exuberance in equal measure. If there is disquieting vulnerability on view, so is there undiluted courage. Ultimately, to look at these portraits is also to be viewed by them. And in the exchange, there's a fleeting brush with a myriad selves and a disquieting reminder of human nature's astonishing complexity. 


UNUSUAL BLEND OF INFLUENCES

Review by Veronica Wilkinson - Cape Times

Natasja de Wet makes subtle use of the combination of her heritage and the global village around her

Artist Natasja de Wet reveals some of the complex facets of an enquiring mind in her works, which include objects like a chair encrusted with silicone rubber extensions that resemble strange, inert anemone tentacles in her lounge. 

A large wooden cabinet with glass drawers also arouse curiosity rewarded by contents like colourful resin “books”, ceramic “roses” (her mother works in ceramics, so De Wet has had the opportunity to experiment with the medium), and an assortment of found objects that range from dried snake-skin shedding to a tiny crocodile claw brought as a souvenir form Thailand many years ago. 

Add to these items printer’s trays, fossils and vintage bric a brac and the interior of De Wet’s home resonates a museum-like atmosphere. Little wooden replicas of kitchen furniture vie with ammonites and vintage striped-enamel bread and sugar tins to create a unique South African feel that is reinforced by her collection of Consol glass containers, in one instance ingeniously screwed into a ceiling fitting as a lampshade. 

In the bedroom her headboard is made from an old message board at Valkenburg Hospital: the source of many of her curious-collections that include a wall-mounted glass cabinet containing a pile of rusted old-fashioned keys with stamped and coded metal tags attached. The items were acquired during the period when she rented a ward as studio space at Oude Molen near the old psychiatric institution. 

These days her garage doubles as a studio where her creative impulses are articulated into two and three-dimensional artworks stimulated by literary sources like Brazilian award-winning human rights author Paulo Coelho who believes that it is possible to understand oneself through work. De Wet also relishes author Charles Nicholl’s fusion of scholarship and storytelling, avidly awaiting his update due in 2009 on Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, originally written by Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century. In fact, Italy is beckoning De Wet this year when she hopes to visit Venice and thereafter participate in Florence Biennale in December. 

Her most recent show was held at the Association for Visual Arts in November with earlier participation in a group exhibition Afrovibes in Amsterdam, the Netherlands in September. Entitled Thicker Skin the AVA exhibition consisted of a straight, horizontal row of clear square acrylic boxes, each containing an object that had been moulded, folded, pleated or crumpled into shape. Different materials like fabric, latex, gauze, bandages, rubber and paper were used in De Wet’s quest to “refer to issues such as camouflage, hiding, insecurity and sexuality”. 

Following the emotional and practical adjustments after her divorce, De Wet feels she is reaching a level of emotional fulfilment that is freeing her to embrace change without fear. Feeling more focussed on her art, she finds processing her creative responses spiritually nourishing and psychologically rewarding. As an aside, she tells me that her sign of the zodiac is Aries, saying she gets bored easily but also pointing out that ever since the age of three she kept a shoebox under her bed filled with objects; her wide-ranging interests have included natural fossils and manufactured miniature toy utensils. 

Hers is an unusual blend of Afrikaans heritage and the embrace of a modern global visual language that manifests itself in assemblage and expressionistic acrylic layered compositions hung on the walls of her home. Some of these have been sold to people like Max Wolpe and collectors overseas following a show at Joao Ferreira Gallery in Cape Town in 2004. 

De Wet has participated in numerous local and overseas shows since she studied for a national diploma in fine art at the Technikon in Pretoria and intends continuing studies through Unisa. 

Her first solo show at the Chelsea Gallery in Cape Town in 2001 was opened by renowned South African artist Judith Mason. Cape Times art critic Benita Munitz wrote of this exhibition: ”De Wet’s artworks come across as intimate reflections of intense experience – journeys into depths most of u would prefer not to plumb”. 

Informed by art history and paying homage to excellence in craft De Wet promises to delight even more as her oeuvre develops in the years ahead. Moving between mediums she creates paintings, mixed media works, three-dimensional assemblage and installations in work that has been described elsewhere as an almost voyeuristic insight into the inner character of humankind. 



LINGER LONGER, CONTEMPLATE DEEPER

Cape Times - 6 March 2001 - review BENITA MUNITZ

FACING REALITY – Paintings by Natasja de Wet

At the Chelsea Gallery Wynberg

DE WET FACES INTERNAL QUESTIONS 

Man cannot stand too much reality, it’s been said. It’s certainly not easy to confront raw unembellished truth – even in a painting. 

Or maybe particularly in a painting. For as artist or viewer we face it as we do a mirror: It reflects a lot more than our image, it reflects ourselves – our perceptions, our way of thinking, beliefs, fears, and a lot more. 

Maybe that’s why many people prefer to look at paintings that present sanitised, prettified, and idealised versions of the real world. 

No such escape in paintings by Natasja de Wet. Like it or not, she gives us the real thing – a sense of authentic experience as she attempts to “face” issues that disturb her. 

De Wet’s artworks come across as intimate reflections of intense experience – journeys into depths most of us prefer not to plumb. 

The artist’s “id” is always there with eternal questions – who am I, where am I, why am I here, what do I want, what do others want of me, who can I trust – and so on. 

How do we read all this? Through De Wet’s remarkable ability to project herself on to Perspex, glass and canvas formats through very personal and often movingly expressive means. 

The artist does not render her realities in realistic terms. In no way would this be sufficiently potent. Rather than creating illusions, De Wet expresses internal and external realities she needs to come to terms with. 

Portraiture is her chosen conduit largely because of subtle – and not so subtle – nuances of facial expression. 

Far from the flattering renderings of commissioned portrait painters, these are paintings that reach into the souls of the subjects. 

Many are wildly distorted by contrasting hues, shadows that resemble bruising, body marks that look like initiation striations, and harsh white highlights. 

Other more subtle signifiers include angled heads and indirect glances, scratching that scar surfaces, incoherent markings – and a tiny eye that peers through layers of Perspex. Such clues lead us further into pictorial depths. 

Activated, it seems, by a sense of urgency, pigment is swept, brushed and scraped on to formats in ways that seem almost automatistic. 

But while the process involves much over painting that clouds the transparency of glass and Perspex format, there is nothing spontaneous about the careful application of collage elements such as rusty metal hinges that have lost their function (become unhinged?). 

Responses and interpretation of de Wet’s art are likely to differ since paintings suggest a great deal without overt explanation. 

While psychological and symbolical aspects take you as deep as you’re inclined to go, the voluptuous application of viscous pigment holds you to the surface, creating a strong sense of physicality. 

You’ll note the way the features emerge out of shadowy depths, disorientation patterns, and debris of different kinds. 

And you may conclude that nothing can entirely obliterate the haunting experience. 

For some viewers this may be a journey to places one is reluctant to revisit. 

But while initially disturbing, these works are ultimately encouraging for they provide many life affirming clues. 

For one thing, in contrast to dark clouds that continuously threaten to overcome the protagonist, faces are illuminated by a bright strong light that seems to emanate from an outside source – that is, the real-life world beyond frame limits. 

The artist’s projection of her subjects towards the living dimension is surely a highly positive and assertive art-act. 

The longer you linger the more you’ll find to contemplate.



FACING REALITY - JUDITH MASON

At the Chelsea Gallery Wynberg

Last Sunday I was reading an interview with pop star Britney Spears in the teenybopper section of a newspaper. I quote, exactly, from the last two items “what are your hobbies?” she was asked. “I like shopping, sleeping and talking to my friends on the ‘phone’”, she replied. “What are your ambitions?” was the final question. ‘To live life to the full” she said. This monument to the comedy of the unexamined life, or at least the unexplored ironies of pop interviews reminded me, by contrast, with the work of Natasja de Wet. 

Natasja invites us to explore the examined life. She delineates for us the graffiti on the insides of our skulls and hearts. She gives us the flic-flac between portrait details- the exterior, in some ways extraneous information set against a layered palimpsest of messages at once obvious and discreet, which we read like manuscripts floating under water with interfering reflections superimposed. Paint, etched lines, Perspex and collage are used like currents behind which meaning ebbs and flows. Her technique is to sometimes suggest, sometimes explain, sometimes tease with a bit of gossip; sometimes confuse. Looking at her work is like being tuned to a number of frequencies simultaneously. These works although physically static have a sort of kinetic energy. Light picks out or blurs bits of information and sometimes our reflections are superimposed on the images as if we are eavesdroppers on the lives she explores so much as invited to share in the intimate process. They are perpetual works in progress, this whole exhibition is a work in progress, and it helps to remember that she is currently studying for a higher degree. Some of the work on display is entirely resolved; some leaves me feeling hungry for resolution. Aside from giving us many desirable single images which we can carry away as trophies she is providing us with a larger metaphor – that our lives and relationships and our place in society itself are ceaseless works in progress. That the making of artworks, or defining life’s meaning, or the practice of ubuntu are not quickly completed chores but the accumulation of layers of experience and the strata thus laid down have an irrational beauty. This work is for me a sort of archaeology of human being, seen in arbitrary cross-section. The elements are mundane – corrugated iron, screws, fragments of mirror, hinges – as are the elements which make up our own bodies – water, potassium, tranquilizers, take-aways, diesel fumes, calcium, whatever. Yet here we all are, a roomful of unique private worlds, rejoicing in the fact that we, like the work before us, are so much greater than the sum of our parts. 

We are privileged tonight to see the first solo exhibition of an important young artist. I am delighted to say that even before the exhibition opened people were queuing to buy Natasja’s very modestly priced work. They are to be congratulated, not just for being the shrewd possessors of life-enhancing objects but because they are part of the creative equation in a society which talks about renaissance without doing enough to enable new artists to live and work.

Coming from Johannesburg I have two stories to share with you. One is about the rash of Witkoppon-Tuscan and Trade Centre-Roman nonsense with which the casino industry is infesting the Highveld. Instead of allowing rising young artists to provide genuinely African renascent images we have what one commentator referred to as “renaissance with its eyes put out”. One of these kitsch-traps has copies of David, which, as a spokesman for the decorators explained with pride, have been computer corrected (or “enhanced’). The original hobbledehoy hands and feet of Michelangelo’s heroic adolescent now conform to the proportions of a mid-thirties, gym-going yuppie. This sort of thing is surreal - patronage as debauchery of great images of long ago and far away.

Then there is the story of a friend who runs a workshop for unemployed people. She told me that a young man with artistic potential showed up at her studio a couple of months ago. He had just been released from jail where he had served seven years for hijacking. She has enabled him to print linocuts which could grace any wall with their naïve charm and integrity. They sell for a mere R50.00 each. Last week he came to her and told her quite frankly that he was thinking of returning to his friends at Orange Farm and their reprehensible trade. Nobody cares about his artwork; he lives in a garage shared with four other men while his criminal comrades get the girls, the cars (naturally), the status and the excitement. The patronage of a few people could mean the difference between life and death for himself and for his potential victims.

Natasja, of course, does not need patronage at this elementary (or elemental) level, but our society needs artists of her gifts, and patrons who have the wit to recognize them, if we are to avoid the cultural chaos which threatens to engulf us.

* government and Cosimo de Medici. Natasja’s work reminds us that we possess soul and poetry and vision and that we are not just consumers of regurgitated rubbish. I am already looking forward to her next exhibition and hazard a guess that her baby, ominously present with us tonight, will appear as part of the text. To this infant I would like to say – be generous little guy. Your mommy needs her sleep and we need her skill and insight. We are so grateful for what she has given us tonight and look forward to a great deal more.