WHAT A (SELF) PORTRAIT CAN DO
by Maxwell Heller
Picturing South Africa in New York
GARY SCHNEIDER: HANDPRINT PORTRAITS, JOHANNESBURG DAVID KRUT PROJECTS | SEPTEMBER 8 – OCTOBER 22, 2011
ANTON KANNEMEYER: AFTER THE BARBARIANS
JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY | OCTOBER 13 – NOVEMBER 12, 2011
At first glance, Gary Schneider’s ink prints on canvas look like satellite images—mottled with whorls of light and fields of charcoal black, they recall photographs of our planet at night, or Hubble snapshots of distant nebulae. But no, they are contact prints of the hands of South African artists, enlarged to a monumental scale. Looking over these handprints on an October afternoon, Schneider remarks that their milky surfaces have been compared to Victorian ectoplasmic photographs, but he doesn’t press the idea that there is anything mystical at work here. In his assessment, these images hold power because they are unique signatures, unaltered impressions left by remarkable people.
Schneider’s HandPrint series grew from the South African-born photographer’s recent visit to Johannesburg. While mounting an exhibition there in 2011, he began a freewheeling portrait of the local arts community by collecting handprints from the painters, photographers, craftspeople, and activists he encountered. He often took impressions from artists he had never met before, getting to know them only through the intimate darkroom process involved in his photogram technique. The project built such momentum that, upon returning to New York (his home since 1977), Schneider immediately made plans to return to South Africa for more samples—and so the Krut show feels like a work-in-progress that will soon appear in a much grander form.
But while the principal aim of the handprint project is to craft a portrait of Jo’burg’s artists, whom Schneider found uniquely industrious and solitary, the series also creates a portrait of the artist himself. The complex textures of Schneider’s prints speak to his obsession with minute detail, the delicate touch with which he digitally picks out every ridge of skin. Palmistry comes to mind—it is as if he is searching each wrinkle for clues about his subjects, for evidence of a connection between their work and their bodies. The prints also illustrate the artist’s drive to record his encounters—this recent series represents only a small fraction of the similar handprints he has collected since 1996, charting years of experience, commemorating family, friends, and colleagues. They do not simply record individuals, they chart vast human networks connected by commonalities known only to the artist. To examine Schneider’s handprints is to catch a glimpse of the way he processes the world around him.
There is something mesmerizing about these prints. At first, they look nearly identical to one another, and it is tempting to breeze past them all once you have examined the first. But then nuances begin to emerge—here a set of fingertips blazes white, as if smashed into the paper; here fog covers a palm’s center, indicating its heat—the individuality of each impression, and the artist behind it, slowly becomes clear. Standing in front of “Senzeni Marasela” (2011), an unexpectedly delicate handprint made by a notoriously uncompromising woman artist, Schneider expresses hope that his prints will inspire New Yorkers to look carefully, and use his images as a small window onto a community parallel to our own.
When it comes to portraits of South Africa, few artists create a more unflattering picture than Anton Kannemeyer, best known for his Tintin-inspired explorations of racial stereotypes. Take for example his larger-than-life acrylic on canvas, “Some Kind of Boo-Boo” (2010), in which three jet-black, red-lipped doctors deliberate incompetently while their white patient sinks lower on his gurney. “A tummy ache?” one doctor suggests. On the same wall in the gallery, in “Very, Very Good” (2010), a white art instructor tells his befuddled black student, “Oh, no! I’m not just saying it because you’re black. I think it’s really very, very good.” These paintings riff off of offensive perceptions of blacks, while portraying white men as long suffering martyrs. As critic Douglas Haddow remarks in an Ion Magazine interview, there are generally two reactions to these caricatures: that they are cynical and racist, or that they are subversive critiques of racism and political correctness. If the latter is true, Kannemeyer’s portraits are clever indictments of the hypocritical whites he depicts, who wear masks of tolerance while privately maintaining delusions of superiority.
But Kannemeyer’s caricatures do not just point fingers at others. Many of the white characters depicted in his recent exhibition, especially the painting instructor, bear a striking resemblance to the artist himself, who taught students of all races for many years before his emergence on the gallery scene. His paintings are not simply assessments of ambient racial tension, but self-portraits exploring his own place in the equation. For this reason, it does little good to declare Kannemeyer part of the problem when it comes to race relations—after all, his work begins with that assumption, and ponders what to do from there.
This is not to say that Kannemeyer’s work focuses entirely on his own experience. Many of his images address the darker moments of Africa’s past, appropriating and reworking forgotten images as reminders of colonial violence. In “Nsala, of the District of Wala” (2011) a man stares (as the caption notes) “at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, Boali, a victim of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company militia.” According to Kannemeyer, this acrylic painting borrows its composition from one of the many shocking photographs that provoked international criticism of Belgium’s brutal rubber-harvesting practices in Congo in the 1800s—but he has made key changes. The image has been polished and updated, placing the father in fresh clothes on a spotless modern veranda, and the whole scene is picked out in bold lines, on a pop-art-scale canvas. Yes, this painting does depict a century-old injustice, but its contemporary look gives a sense of pointed urgency, as if the brutal scene were taking place right now. Kannemeyer cracks jokes and pontificate about his own part in the history of racial strife—but he also he creates images that make us look at ourselves, listen to our laughter, and question the role we play, as well.