By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
At one point during my recent visit to the William Kentridge exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a man who happened to be standing nearby informed me, with genuine emotion, that this was the best exhibition he’d seen in years. “It makes all those people who just throw paint up on a canvas look really ridiculous,” he said.
I wasn‘t sure exactly who he meant by “those people,” but I found myself agreeing enthusiastically with the sentiment: This is indeed the sort of art -- committed, vigorous and far-reaching -- that makes a lot of other art seem petty.
One reason for this distinction (or at least for my sense of it as a distinction) may be the artist’s relative distance from the standard well of sources, influences and postures that contemporary American artists can all too easily rely upon. Born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, Kentridge (who is white) studied art throughout his youth but obtained his undergraduate degree in politics and African studies and, after college, also worked extensively in the theater as an actor, director and set designer -- a diversity of pursuits that has shaped both the content and the form of his drawings. When it came to art, he felt little affinity, at least initially, with the avant-garde traditions that were flourishing up north. “Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America in the 1960s and 1970s seemed distant and incomprehensible to me,” he recalls in one catalog essay. Abstraction was impossibly apolitical; conceptual art, curious but self-indulgent in the face of the ongoing turmoil in his country. Instead, he found: “The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure. I remember thinking that one had to look backwards -- even if quaintness was the price one paid.”
It may well have been. Scattered with visual traces of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz and other Expressionists, the large charcoal drawings that form much of this exhibition make no claims on radical innovation, at least stylistically. Indeed, the very belief in drawing as a potential conduit for emotional narrative -- apparent here in every thick stroke -- is itself somewhat old-fashioned. But it‘s difficult to imagine another mode of representation that could carry the same weight in the end. The charcoal is soft, flexible enough to capture a wide range of expressions, and so engrossing that you can almost smell its dust. Kentridge’s figures are sensual and slow-moving, as though literally heavy with sorrow and melancholy, and his full-bodied landscapes appear to breathe beneath the feet of their lonely inhabitants.
These drawings literally come to life in the short animated films that are the exhibition‘s real showcase. Here, Kentridge creates movement by painstakingly photographing a series of erasures and additions made within a single drawing (rather than over a sequence of several drawings, as in traditional animation). The result is a smooth, thick flow of images. Objects materialize magically from an ether of dusty gray only to be consumed by it once more; figures drift through spaces that shift seamlessly into one another, as in a dream; and every motion leaves a faint trail of shadow behind. Set to evocative, often melancholic music (some classical, some specially commissioned by the artist), the effect is utterly hypnotic. By introducing the element of time -- an impulse that stems, no doubt, from his experience in the theater -- Kentridge seems not merely to animate his drawings but to really break them open and reveal their inner logic.
Eight of the 11 films presented here, created as a series between 1989 and 1999, take place in the devastated landscape of late- and post-apartheid South Africa and revolve around two fictional white characters: Soho Eckstein, an industrial magnate in a striped suit, and Felix Teitlebaum, an artist, always depicted in the nude, who steals the affections of Soho’s wife. The narrative is loose and largely impressionistic -- Soho builds his empire; Felix seduces Mrs. Eckstein; Soho mourns the loss of his wife; Felix smolders in exile -- but the images are indelible. A tiny fish slithers from Felix‘s mouth to Mrs. Eckstein in lieu of a kiss; anonymous black bodies fall on an empty plain only to melt into land formations; the pockets of Soho’s suit overflow with streams of blue water; rows of miners pound into walls of underground passages, shrouded in darkness. The images refer again and again to the cycles of history -- the interplay between construction and destruction, hope and grief, amnesia and memory (“between paper shredders and photocopying machines,” as Kentridge has characterized the present-day condition in his country). Whether this history is personal or national comes to seem as irrelevant as the question of whether it is Soho or Felix who is to blame for all the trouble. In the face of all that‘s occurred in South Africa over the last century -- read the time line in the back of the catalog for a historical precis more appalling than you probably remember -- these sorts of easy divisions are impossible to sustain.