REOPENING PLATO’S CAVE: The legacy of Kevin Atkinson. At Smac Stellenbosch until Saturday. DANNY SHORKEND reviews

AS A follow up of Kevin Atkinson’s Plato’s Cave at IZIKO SANG about two years ago, curated by Hayden Proud and Steven Croesser, Smac presents a revisit of the magical artist, academic and teacher. This show is curated by Marilyn Martin and Jo-Anne Duggan.

The exhibition includes his finely etched aluminum panels, his Arena series and his keen sense of the meaning inherent in matter as so materialised in his “Object boxes”. Kevin Atkinson’s (1939-2008) output however was not bounded and he is also known for conceptual art, performance art, installation and land art. His best medium – painting – shifted in style from the geometric canvases of the 60’s to the more organic 70’s and the emotively charged expressionistic 80’s, yet his work is deeply laden with philosophical meditations, considerations about language and semantics, often couched in mystical verve (or practical applications within the arena that is the canvas time-space). He had conversations with Marcel Duchamp at one point. To unpack this further.

Abstract art is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is the axe against the classical, realist and ideologically motivated political art that often masks an immoral code of conduct. In this sense “abstract” art was often considered “degenerate” to that of a Fascist, totalitarian, dictatorial regime.

On the other hand, its formal and inscrutable code is an anathema to real-life issues and thus one may argue that it constitutes the insidious erasure of history, national identity and political awareness. It is probably in regards to this latter point that prompted Hayden Proud, key note speaker at the opening of Professor Kevin Atkinson’s work on September 10, 2013 at the South African National Gallery, to assert that in South Africa, abstract art was (is?) considered “un-South African”.

However this need not be the case. For in regards to abstract art’s “universality”, in eschewing particular form; in accessing the “private realm” and the painting-meditation of formal (and often geometric) components, one might say that abstract art held a utopian promise, one which overlooks dualities, antagonism, partialities.

Yet even that may not be the point (for a utopian promise may paradoxically lead to totalitarian thinking in itself). Rather, I believe all Kevin Atkinson was saying may be encapsulated by what he says and that is evident in a drawing, when he asserts: “matter as embodiment of idea”.

This idea means that his paintings (and drawings) having nothing to do with ignoring politics, a simple “private realm”, with no consideration for life. Rather, Kevin Atkinson’s position is one of Archimedean neutrality – though one says this tentatively - whereby his creations that are his painting and drawings are an embodiment of deep thought and expansive expressivity. This “position” is and is not politically relevant. Ego becomes less ego. Consider his blue painting of 1998 where he acknowledges his teachers.

Clearly his teachers were Eurocentric. However, Eastern and African examples penetrated the European market by the onset of Modernism and thus one cannot easily separate Eurocentric, African and Eastern examples.

This does not minimise the differences between traditions and their cultural manifestation, while at the same time pointing to a inter-inclusion of cultures without that itself being “essentially” Eurocentric, African or Eastern (to further complicate the matter these very categories are not “stable particles” and when we enter the life of the individual and individual artist at that, this may be even more so).

My particular predilection for abstraction begins with my appreciation for Wassily Kandinsky who taught that nature could transform into a kind of “visual music”, building on the insights of the Impressionists and postimpressionists. However, the conceptual work of Duchamp and the kenosis of abstraction with minimalism tend toward proving the sterility of abstraction and in particular the formalist, aesthetic reductionism through which abstraction is said to be understood.

But the anaesthetic does not spell the end of abstract art; it merely points to the necessity for a more encompassing interpretive theory. In this vein, one recalls Barnett Newman’s aversion to being part of the “formalist” experiment and his proclamation that there is “no good art about nothing”. Thus, abstract art can maintain its dignity with the realisation that indeed it is about something. It is better then to use to phrase “abstract-symbolic” when talking about abstraction.

In this light, Kevin Atkinson’s work concerns metaphysical subject matter, the precise nature of which is nevertheless discerned by the sensual and entertained eye, as it were – or in other words – an aesthetic modality. Thus there is dialectic between the iconographic and the formal components.

Yet having made the point for “deep” content, perhaps Kevin Atkinson’s work precludes the African specificity, of the ilk of Skotnes and Battiss. In this regard, one may legitimately ask whether his abstract variations are relevant in a South African context and as a corollary, whether its seeming universalism actually says very little. My contention is that his work in general falls snugly into the realm of – and tradition of - Abstract Expressionism, an action-orientated painting style that even in its reclusive privacy – deals with principles relevant to a more conscious life-praxis. That is, his axis mundi, his genesis paintings, his sensitivity of line, colour and scale, mark out an arena that is to be applied to a kind of Zen-like consciousness in daily living.

Having said that, Abstract Expressionism has long since blown over and the penetration of new media and conceptual art (where form is minimal) or figurative, politically motivated art undermines the “viscosity” of the artist’s hand. His work may be old hat.

However, I still maintain that this exhibition together with the previous one at the South African National Gallery invites healthy speculation over the latent spirituality in art-making and philosophical idealism - and that post modern culture, by definition, should welcome a neo abstract-symbolic exploration in paint and other media.

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