Kizo at the Gateway mall is abuzz with artists, art lovers, socialites, friends and family. People hover in front of the diverse works of the five participating local artists - Lara Mellon, Maggie Strachan, Joan Martin, Lesley Magwood-Fraser and Rene Leslie – chat, exchange opinions, sip wine and debate the issues of the day.
Sadly, those attending the opening of the exhibition, ‘Scratching Surfaces’, are just a small portion of the many Durbanites who could interact with the city’s substantial artistic talents. Most are intimidated by the notion that someone in the crowded room might realize that they know very little about the art world. Others have been frightened off by the echo of their own footsteps in an empty gallery by day.
“Art is a form of communication. It means different things to different people. It is not a reflection on our ability to understand. We are entitled to express our feelings,” argues Maggie Strachan who, in addition to her own career, has dedicated much of her life to art education.
Lara Mellon adds: “People seem to need to have permission to have an opinion. I have found that, once given permission to respond, (those who think they know nothing) are often spot on and provide an insightful response. That response teaches me. I measure that and use it.”
Both this exhibition and the relationship between the five artists is based on communication – a fact that was highlighted by former director of the Durban Art Gallery, Carol Brown during her opening speech. Unlike in many group exhibitions, there was a marked absence of aggression or competition between artists and a special humility. “They are not trying to change the world or make grand political statements,” she said.
At the most basic level, the five artists share studio space and gather to share their experiences and opinion on each other’s work. Mellon and Strachan have painted together since 2000 and have exhibited together in London’s West End. This is their fourth home exhibition together. “We have all connected as artists and as individuals. One common thread is mark making but, for each of the artists involved, this is very individual. We all have our own styles. We all explore surfaces,” Mellon points out.
Kizo’s curator, Nathi Gumede takes this a step further. “The artists share a passion for the landscape (the surface) and the inhabitants of KwaZulu Natal. Expressive mark-making (scratching) and, in particular, the traditional medium of drawing is what initially drew them together. They all grapple with the integration of their “scratching” with the surface of their chosen medium which tends to be two dimensional, but varies. The artists, however, share the sentiment that they are all just “scratching the surface” in terms of their potential as artists.”
Lara Mellon’s work which is along the stairwell and at the opening to the gallery is formally defined as “mixed media”. Her earlier works focus more specifically on the natural environment and are more detailed and colourful with intense blues predominating.
Her later work is more enigmatic with thicker layers of paint into which small etched figures, taken from photographs, have been inserted, creating a collage like and even three dimensional effect. While most feature single figures embarking on solitary journeys, two works - Crossing Borders and Gold Rush – focus on crowded, busy Africa whose intense energy and unexpected beauty are issues that Mellon is exploring at present.
Joan Martin’s oils provide a somewhat startling contrast. Her paintings – with titles like ‘Drapery’, ‘Amber’, ‘Durban December’ and ‘Red Wedding’ – centre on interconnected tree branches populated by religious symbols, bits of jewellery, animals chandeliers and even people. She also embellishes some paintings with antique lace and decorative patterns.
While Martin’s work is large, bold and adventurous, Maggie Strachan’s work is detailed and intense and far smaller, a development which the artist says is an interesting change from the larger canvases of the past. These are more intimate and meditative.
There are two bodies of work on exhibition – vibrant London night scenes which are the oils that she says are her passion and mixed media on paper which are complex and intense. These began on a scroll on which various images have unfolded over the past three years. She explains that she has added layers - bitumen, linseed oil, turpentine, thinners, prints and drawings. In the individual images, Strachan says she has “worked them further”.
Symbolism (the African dog, architectural structures and natural stones and even a musical score) is strong and is a natural progression from the artist’s fascination with dreams and sub conscious elements that emerge during the creative process.
Rene Leslie also adopts a strongly graphic approach, reflecting her strength in drawing. Her work is largely black and white with limited colour. The convergence of lines suggests layering and creates both texture and depth. There is an explicit investigation of the ancient theme of horse and rider, ultimately exploring the relationship between humans and animals.
Lesley Magwood-Fraser’s work is a complete contrast to that of her fellow exhibitors. Whereas theirs, to some extent, hankers back to more historical issues, her work is more immediate and reflects the day to day realities of an urban environment. In contrast to the more clichéd images of Durban, Magwood-Fraser has captured municipal workers in bright overalls and figures engaged in daily tasks before adding botanical elements that provide an environmental context.
Overall, this exhibition presents an extremely diverse and meaningful body of work. The most important, shared preoccupation seems to be exploring the multi-layered meanings that hover just below the surface – and scratching many different surfaces relentlessly to reveal a meaningful reality. “All our work needs to be relevant, it needs to speak. There has to be meaning. Our work is not decorative. It is about communication,” Mellon concludes.