Visual Art

Two renowned figurative artists find magical ways to create their own history. By Patrick Hartigan.

The sculptural works of William Kentridge & Linda Marrinon

Linda Marrinon’s 2014 busts (from left) Remembrance and Revolutionist.
Linda Marrinon’s 2014 busts (from left) Remembrance and Revolutionist.
Credit: Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
History has a fascinating impact on art. Under Stalin’s iron fist and watchful gaze, Dmitri Shostakovich allowed a very secret, very risky Jewish folk melody influence to seep into his work. These melodies were characterised by a kind of “tearful laughter”, laments butting up against the marches and foxtrots. The dynamic in these playful, melancholy works of Shostakovich come to my mind when thinking about the work of both Linda Marrinon and William Kentridge.

The latter artist, who grew up during apartheid in South Africa, recently directed as well as designed and created videos for The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, a massive undertaking met with much acclaim. While increasingly taking on bigger, more ambitious projects such as this, Kentridge continues to produce and exhibit his drawings, prints, sculptures and the moving image works that first brought him to international attention. Currently at Sydney’s Annandale Galleries until May 24 is a substantial offering of such works, which reveals the restless and fluid ways in which Kentridge scours language and memory in the hope of divining or reopening history. 

If history and world events are Kentridge’s point of departure, it is the humanity of depiction, the kind of love and connection with things that is engendered through a process such as drawing, that might better describe his obsession. In this process objects are sought, associations made, other objects found. Sometimes these things connect, whether loosely or directly, to terrible moments now terribly forgotten. At other times, they are happy to be stuck in the lexical snail trail leading back to those moments. In this sense Kentridge is part storyteller, part historian, part lingual philosopher. 

Kentridge’s skill as a draftsman is undeniable. But the rigour of his practice, while generally his blessing, sometimes seems to overdetermine the outcome of his work. While having enjoyed many of his animations – specifically those with delicately juxtaposed moods – I’ve found the academic tendencies of others somewhat stifling. Second-hand Reading (2013), a free-associating meditation that takes place against the backdrop of turning pages from a dictionary on mechanics, is an example of the latter. But if “mechanical” might be the word with which to criticise this artist, the momentum of his sometimes too-well-oiled engine ultimately impresses. It also provides an ideal foundation to take on the scale of opera and theatre – close affinities with which are in evidence throughout his work.

 The way the works move and find new ground – in what could easily be dismissed as old ground – is particularly impressive. Strangely enough it was the customarily “static” objects, his bronze Rebus sculptures (2013), that in this collection of work shifted most engagingly for me. In a row of small bronzes a man’s head on second viewing becomes an ampersand while a reclining nude turns out to be an ink stamp and telephone. Kentridge is unique in the way he remains tied to traditional methods but without the righteousness or defensiveness of singularity we usually expect from these forms. As a result the work feels both orthodox and free – forever leaping the moat of its orthodoxy. 

History and orthodoxy are also the backdrops from which, in Linda Marrinon’s work, to project forth. Marrinon creates works that have rare emotional subtlety and interiority, and the busts currently on display at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney are instructive for what the perpetual momentum of Kentridge’s process might be seen to sacrifice. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what this is but something in Nabokov’s distinction of poetry from science helps: “While the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time.”

While animated in their expressiveness, Marrinon’s sculptures captivate with their “everything in one point of time” poise. To walk among a group of them is to be taken on an intensely emotional, non-instructional journey. The current group of hand-coloured plaster busts delight in their materiality: hair lumped on like dollops of gelato, fingerprint-tracked visages, tenderly strung plaster shawls and ridiculously cute colour-pencilled eyes. It seems silly to pick out any one work in such a consummate group, but I was particularly drawn in by the hesitant stoicism of Remembrance (2014), a figure, with its sienna red tones, that might have been unearthed from an ancient ruin.

Earlier works by this artist, namely the paintings of museum objects, now feel thin when compared with the emotional magnitude of the recent sculptures. If the earlier works were trapped by the awkwardness and self-consciousness of postmodernism, the newer works take this awkwardness to higher places. Like Shostakovich and that equally wary art traveller Manet, Marrinon greets the pomp and circumstance of history with a nudge and a wink. And while her figures are never quite at home in those absurd museum rooms of busts and posers, they always find their magic in them. 

Reticence is a word that comes to mind with Marrinon but somehow, no matter how quietly her sculptures talk, they always do so in a way that makes it hard to walk away. Help me out of this art quagmire, these formalities and pretensions, they sometimes say, while at other times pinning our attentions with their cheeky defiance and triumph. Whatever their attitude and stance, Marrinon’s sculptures are unashamedly, spellbindingly beautiful. To encounter such intense, complicated beauty is to feel nervous and privileged in equal measures. 

Embodied in the work of both Linda Marrinon and William Kentridge is an awareness of how much is at stake when making art. The figurative tradition they belong to was never easy. But somehow with the ease of endless reproducibility, the eye of the needle through which such historically bound and consumed art needs to pass in order to survive and be great – here I think in particular of those busts – seems only to get smaller. During a time when connection is taken care of but also hopelessly disabled by the efficiency of cables, these artists are significant conduits to history’s unassailable, always curious treasure chest of pictures and objects.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Sculpted from reticence".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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