William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows
Through April 9, 2023
By PETER FRANK, March 2023
There is general consensus that South African multimedialist William Kentridge is one of the leading artists of our time. “Leading” can be one of those empty adjectives that seek to qualify art with quantified bluster; but not only does Kentridge in his intellectual, social, and technical ambition “lead” with aesthetic and extra-aesthetic substance, but he literally “leads” us into and through a world view of profound wonder and equally powerful witness.
Along with other multivalent artists such as Ilya Kabakov, Lezley Saar, Anselm Kiefer, and Michael McMillen, Kentridge has many tales to tell and manifold ways of telling them – that is, of constructing and presenting narrative. Material, form, and format, spectacle and intimate engagement, vast scale and petite, static image and kinetic, handwork and machine craft, all conflate in Kentridge’s mind and studio into a cascade of surprisingly, refreshingly diverse experiences – a manifestation dating back at least three decades of the modern Gesamtkunstwerk and what purposes it can serve, artistic and otherwise, in a (post-)post-modern world. Kentridge proposes an “immersive” art avant la lettre, drawing upon sources as diverse as political agitprop, landscape painting, animation, sound poetry, broadcast news, utilitarian design, and modern European literature to construct a world-view that stresses “world” and “view” equally – indeed, puts the artist’s view at the world’s service whenever possible and gets continually energized by the world’s condition(s).
While he impresses, even overwhelms, his audiences with feverish inventiveness and multi-pronged virtuosity, it is not Kentridge’s purpose, at least principally, to overawe us. His art, famously, has always sought to keep human injustice and abjection front and center. As a committed ally of those in his country who have struggled against the apartheid regimes – and against the scars they left on the South African psyche – Kentridge cut his aesthetic eyeteeth on political activism (following his own family’s longtime convictions but turning them into artistic expression). The earliest work in this survey are gritty, powerful depictions, both symbolic and literal, of figures to reckon with in the South African milieu. Dating from the mid-1980s these woodcuts, lithographs, and other print forms respond to the neo-expressionism of the era with a pointed social awareness that figure painters in Germany and Italy and England could barely muster. Jörg Immendorf and Sue Coe chose their issues; Kentridge was born to his.
The narrative at the core of Kentridge’s oeuvre centers on a lone (and lonely) individual whom the artist calls Soho Eckstein and clearly intends as a doppelgänger – albeit one whose sociopolitical role in the South African context is a good deal more conflicted than Kentridge’s own. Rather, this middle-aged nominally Jewish businessman has interests in some of the country’s mines, and thus is directly implicated in the system that exploits the indigenous peoples. Eckstein is beset with guilt and growing confusion, apparently exacerbated by a medical crisis. The exhibition does not resolve the Eckstein’s alienation, and I suspect Kentridge’s narrative arc doesn’t, either. Indeed, in the welter of formats with which the artist tells Eckstein’s story, contemporaneously with films of the miners themselves – rendered in that charcoal-erasure animation Kentridge has made his signature method – the fictional character endures, one of the “shadows” inferred in the show’s title. The miners comprise many shadows more.
However interwoven with the pathos of his native land, Kentridge’s art – certainly as presented here in Ed Schad’s discerning and gently didactic curation – is not bound by it. The convictions motivating this polymathic, ever-thirsty artist are constantly escaping their bounds, and Kentridge, the survey makes you feel, is constantly flying in and out of his studio attempting to bring his rambunctious ideas and inspirations back to the drawing board. Several filmic installations comically featuring the artist at work – rendering, measuring, pacing – crystallize this sense of unstoppable elaboration and variation and multiplication, ideas and ideas for ideas blossoming and blowing out the door or window. Kentridge’s world, finally, is more fecund and expansive than the world itself is. No wonder he’s so fond of grand opera. And, given his bemused regard for a fragile world, no wonder Kentridge favors darkly witty operas like The Magic Flute and Shostakovich’s The Nose to design and even direct. Nothing Wagnerian for William Kentridge, dankies, he’ll bring his own Gesamtkunstwerk. WM
PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine. He began his career in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and organized exhibitions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Alternative Museum. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and former editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine Los Angeles, and was art critic for LA Weekly and Angeleno Magazine. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and many other national and international venues. (Photo: Eric Minh Swenson)
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