In a 1998 interview, the South African photographer David Goldblatt described a dilemma he’s faced for 50 years -- "how to square one’s conscience with being a white in this country." Rather than documenting apartheid resistance (what South Africans call "struggle" photography), he decided to focus on everyday existence, shooting portraits, interiors, buildings, monuments and landscapes, from the so-called black homelands to the richest white suburbs and everywhere in between.
Two floors of the New Museum are now dedicated to "Intersections Intersected: The Photography of David Goldblatt," an exhibition of photos taken during apartheid’s worst years, through Nelson Mandela’s presidency and up to the present "time of AIDS" -- a designation Goldblatt adds to the titles of a series of recent photographs. (The virus is particularly widespread in South Africa, and representations of red AIDS ribbons are everywhere.)
Before liberation, Goldblatt explained, "To live in South Africa at all required compliance with apartheid regulations. I probed the phenomenon of a society much concerned with ordinary decencies yet based, it seemed to me, on fundamental immorality." Strangely echoing the polarized system they recorded, the apartheid era photographs emphasize the humanity of victims and oppressors. In a society that petrified all difference between races -- personal, visual and spatial -- he appropriately photographed only in black and white, and separated his work into groups defined by ethnicity -- Afrikaners, blacks in Soweto, Indians in their neighborhoods.
A sense of loss pervades Freda Fleischman and her Father, Highlands North, Johannesburg, 1973, an image of a seated white man seemingly pinioned in an armchair in a floral-wallpapered room, his smiling child appearing only in a photograph on the floor beside him. And in Young man at home, White City, Jabavu, Soweto, Johannesburg, 1 October 1972, a black youth sits calmly next to a creamy vase of flowers on a table, his quiet dignity belying the desperate constraint of his situation.
In the 1980s, Goldblatt began a series of photographs of places, which were published in a 1998 book called South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, and shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art the same year. One theme the project explored was the difference in black and white relationships towards the land. For whites, South Africa was a frontier to be colonized with pristine homes and carefully maintained gardens, an environment whose native inhabitants hardly seem to exist. Non-whites could not own land and were restricted to tiny spaces in cities or moved here and there in groups, often forced to leave the places where their ancestors had lived.
Apartheid’s end in 1994 led the way to a transformation in Goldblatt’s imagery. Fittingly, he switched to color in the late 1990s, as South Africa set out on the road to becoming a rainbow nation. Instead of photographing specific groups of people, he now travels through the country in a specially constructed rough-terrain vehicle, taking photographs of whatever interests him. He also began to digitize his work, replacing the darkroom with the computer.
Titled "Pairs," the installation on the museum’s fourth floor features photographs from "Structures," Goldblatt's series from the 1980s, placed next to pictures of the same or similar places taken in the last few years. In a black-and-white photo taken in 1985, a small black child salutes the viewer with an upraised arm in front of the freshly made graves of the Cradock Four, anti-apartheid activists killed by security police. Next to it, a 2004 color image shows that the site is now a well-maintained graveyard, with a large sign identifying it as a project of the South African Heritage Resources. The headstones of the actual graves are dwarfed, as if an emblem of bureaucracy overpowering tragedy.
The brutal interruptions of daily life common during the apartheid years are illustrated in a 1984 photo of a mother and son lying on a bed outdoors, next to a few bits of furniture. Their shelter of brushwood and plastic had just been destroyed by the authorities, turning it into a phantom dwelling that violently contrasts with the pristine houses in rich white neighborhoods seen elsewhere in the show. More recent photographs nearby reveal that masses of these plastic covered shanties continue to exist.
The works on the third floor also include a selection of large color triptychs, mostly portraits of single places seen from different angles, often featuring placards, notices and billboards. Missing!!! C&B Hiring and Décor, Voortrekker Road, Parow, Cape Town, Western Cape, 26 March 2006 is a tour de force of reflections in glass. A shop display of a table setting embellished with pink and maroon bunting has an advertisement for a missing child pasted to the window, a reminder of loss that clashes with the store’s carefully maintained artifice. The show is on view July 15-Oct. 11, 2009.
Song Dong at MoMA
Everyday life in its most down-to-earth details is the subject of the installation by the Chinese artist Song Dong in the atrium at the Museum of Modern Art. The monumental space is filled with a sprawling collection of thousands of humble objects: window screens, cardboard, bottle tops, empty toothpaste tubes, rags, keys and shoes (to name just a few of the many types of items), all carefully categorized and neatly arranged in groups. In the center of the room is a makeshift wooden pavilion, which shelters a display of colorful empty bottles and shopping bags.
Titled "Waste Not," the assemblage is the work of the artist’s mother, Zhao Xiang Yuan. She grew up in poverty, and every piece of string or bit of soap was a carefully guarded treasure. As economic conditions improved, she remained unable to throw anything away, fearing future deprivation. After Dong’s father died in 2002, she became severely depressed. To give her life some purpose, and also as a way to return value to her hoarded possessions, Dong decided to ask his mother to turn them into an installation. The show, which remains on view until Sept. 7, has been up since June 24, and everything is dusty, including the labels.
MOMA’s normally pristine corporate space has thus been invaded by a scavenger’s flea market freighted with nostalgia, summoning up the poverty of a not-too-distant time and place. Waste Not is a monument to a family’s mourning and the frugality of a past generation. The filial Song Dong basically erased his artistic subjectivity to find a way to restore his mother’s happiness. Unfortunately, she passed away in January.
Mayer Kischenblatt, "Painted Memories"
Visual documentation of another bygone way of life can be found at the Jewish Museum in "They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust," on view until Oct. 1. Mayer Kirshenblatt was born in Opatow, Poland, in 1916, and immigrated to Canada with his family in 1934, when he was 17. His daughter Barbara, a scholar of Eastern European Jewish life and culture, after interviewing her father for many years, finally convinced him to begin painting in 1989, when he was 73.
Nicknamed July because he was "hot," Kirshenblatt was excitable and hyperactive as a boy, constantly running around. He knew everything that was going on in the town, and seems to remember every detail. Over 80 works are on view, including paintings of the kleptomaniac wife of the richest man in town hiding a fish in her brassiere, the town prostitute lifting her dress to reveal her sex, and a thief with a sack of stolen laundry waiting for his accomplice. All are rendered in a primitive style reminiscent of works by Grandma Moses, the Georgian folk artist Niko Pirosmani and Marsden Hartley.
The memory paintings end with his family’s departure -- selling and giving away possessions, facing a woman with a swastika armband beneath an enormous portrait of Hitler, and arriving on a ship in Canadian waters. In addition to his own experiences, however, Kirshenblatt has recorded his extended family’s fate in two tragic works inspired by Goya’s famous execution paintings. Slaughter of the Innocents 1 and Slaughter of the Innocents 2 illustrate the massacre of his paternal grandmother’s family as his grandmother watches, tied to a tree. In the first painting they stand, just shot, with spots of blood on their clothes. In the second, they collapse, clinging to one another.
Hurvin Anderson at the SMH
The 34-year-old British artist Hurvin Anderson also looks back to the past, but his paintings -- figurative works and abstractions rooted in real life -- are modern, sophisticated and knowing. Born to Jamaican parents in Birmingham, England, Anderson studied with Peter Doig and got his MA from London’s Royal College of art in 1998. His solo exhibition, "Peter’s Series 2007-2009," is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem until Oct. 25.
The subject is a barbershop in an attic in Birmingham where Anderson’s father gets his hair cut, one of the last remaining examples of businesses in unexpected places run and patronized by Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s. Seven large oil paintings are on view, each approximately 6 by 5 feet, along with a few acrylic sketches. Beginning with a study of the barbershop furniture, the first three paintings are successively more abstract. The simplest, Peter’s 3 (2007), is an arrangement of blue rectangles representing the walls of the space, set over a white ceiling and floor. The picture plane’s flatness is emphasized by vertical brushstrokes and drips.
A customer finally appears in the last two paintings, an anonymous everyman seen from the rear in a chair, dwarfing the previously expansive room. In Peter’s Sitters 2 (2009), the final work in the series, two blue rectangles again represent the walls in front of him. The red plaid cloth over his shoulders is rendered in layers of substantial paint, as are his head and one white sock. The chair legs are evanescent and flat, as if only his smock and the nape of his vulnerable neck are real, a metaphor for the immigrant experience, perhaps.
Annie Pootoogook at the NMAI
A meeting of disparate cultures is also evoked in drawings by the Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, now on view at the foot of Manhattan in the National Museum of the American Indian. Pootoogook’s grandmother and mother were also artists, and she began drawing in 1997 at an artist’s co-op in West Baffin, Cape Dorset, her Arctic north Canadian home. Her work was also seen in the 2007 edition of Documenta, the international exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany.
Pootoogook draws in the clear and simple style first developed by the Inuit to depict traditional scenes. Fifty years after her people gave up nomadic hunting and living in tents for settlement life, Pootoogook’s subjects are modern, often realistic and usually autobiographical. Television sets abound, tuned to news shows, talk shows and even playing porn.
Using cream-colored paper, Pootoogook goes over her clear pencil outlines in black ink and then colors them with crayon pencils. The drawings depict episodes from the artist’s life, as well as everyday objects including scissors, pencils and eyeglasses. Several depict especially dramatic and violent scenes, including a Shooting a Mountie (2001), an image of a bearded man with a ponytail pointing a rifle at a policeman outside his house. Drops of blood fly out of a wound in the Mountie’s chest, as a horrified woman looks on in the open doorway.
In another drawing called Man Abusing His Partner (2001-02), a woman leans back on a bed and yells (the sound of her voice is represented by parenthesis shapes coming out of her mouth). A man, also yelling, holds a big stick over his head, ready to wallop her. And in Memory of My Life: Breaking Bottles (2002), an irate Pootoogook is seen smashing the containers of booze that may have fueled his violence.
Pootoogook herself can be seen in a video in a small room in the exhibition, saying that she wishes she could have lived earlier, when Inuit traditional life was still complete. The video also shows her stark surroundings, a bleak landscape of small houses in the snow, illuminated by golden electric light bulbs under the midnight sun’s pale skies. The show is up until Jan. 10, 2010.
Scott Reeder, "Painter"
Inspired by the recent exhibition of late works by Pablo Picasso at Gagosian Gallery, several of the incandescent pictures in "Painter," Scott Reeder’s solo exhibition at Daniel Reich, include Cubist heads with multiple features. Instead of being tension-filled exercises in modernistic aggression, however, they are flaccid and droopy as discarded stuffed toys, and instead of representing artistic muses and lovers, they are portraits of cokeheads with their noses pressed against the edges of tables -- rather like affectionate puppies looking for snacks. Tiny straws are ready for sniffing up piles of sugary white powder.
In addition to the figures, several lovely paintings depict objects in succulent colors that bring Pierre Bonnard and Milton Avery to mind. Drunk Flower (2009), a single white blossom in a pale blue vase that has drooped into a golden snifter of brandy, seems to be drowning its sorrows by submerging its entire head. Blue Still Life (2009) is a bit more foreboding. A helmet, club and handcuffs are rendered in midnight blues and blacks and purples, set off by a luminous turquoise ground.
The violence these implements threaten seems about to take place in the predominately black, grey and brown Cops Ascending Staircase (2009), a play on Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and the dourest painting in the show. A group of helmeted policemen brandishing nightsticks can be seen, perhaps on their way to put an authoritative end to Reeder’s lusciously painted, drug-fueled paradise. Prices range from $3,000 to $10,000; the show is up until Aug. 29.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and critic.