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Kathy venter life.

ONE OF THE MOST COMPELLING IMAGES TO COME OUT of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was that of the toppling of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It had nothing to do with the invasion per se (it was actually undertaken by Iraqis themselves) and accomplished little if anything by way of contributing towards the progress of the invasion and the dismantling of the Hussein regime. But as a symbol ic act- the destruction of a much-hated symbol - it had huge significance.

That significance had almost everything to do with representation. Pulling down the hated images - the icons - of despised and toppled leaders is a powerful gesture with a long and venerable history. To overthrow the representation is, in a real way, to overthrow the person.

The short version of all of this is that the sculpturally representational can be politically, socially and personally provocative (even dangerously so) in a way that a representational painting, print, or drawing can only rarely achieve. We respond differently; more viscerally and less in the head.

And that brings us to Kathy Venter, a South African-born artist (who has made Canada her home since 1989) and the exhibition Life. It almost entirely comprises life-size sculptural ceramic representations of women, following in the great Greek tradition of the nude. Lest we are unsure or unaware of that lineage, a couple of Venter's pieces (and everything shown here is mounted as installations in highly specific and interrelated groupings and arrangements) include a meaningful bit of an architectural element: columns. Metanarrative (2007, 2012, 2013), for instance, comprise two figurative elements (more about them later) and two enormous stacked columns topped with rather decaying capitals that frame the installation. And Metalepsis (2007) includes a figurative element con textualised by five partial columns (only one of which has a capital) that, as an installation, form a kind of colonnade.

The point of reference is clear. Lest we still miss it, though, within the dominating, fully figurative landscape of her work Venter situates another body of work that further locates us. The Ostraca Series (2008-2009) comprises a number of busts in the classical vein. They have a strong semblance of artefacts that have endured the decaying influence of entropy; arms are, of course, absent (save for the exception that proves the rule, the work Phalaborwa, in which the female figure gestures with her right arm while her left one is folded across her chest), but Venter has sculpted the pieces so that such appendages seem more like they have been broken off over time rather than never having been incorporated in the piece in the first place. And in a number of works the base of the bust too is jagged and suggestive of the brokenness of a missing torso. In a nutshell, Venter engages absence head-on as a primary aesthetic element. Loss, it would appear, figures in her work.

The Ostraca Series also incorporates another element, an unmissable visual device that figures in a big and literally splashy way throughout all the bodies of work shown here: the busts are all messily spattered and streaked with layers of slip - white, yellow, red - that seem to have little to do with the pieces themselves. It is an effect that appears unsettlingly intrusive, as if someone had sought to deliberately efface the work. And, indeed, someone has: Venter herself. The apparently chaotic application of coloured slip sometimes evidences itself, on closer inspection, as wide brush strokes (Ostraca Series: Light-Year even tracks the telltale brush strokes coursing around the figure's breasts) and spatters, a painterly touch of something akin to a touch of abstract expressionism as if, say, Jackson Pollack had aesthetically addressed the sculptural.

Such 'marring' is front and centre with: the installation that, at the Gardiner Museum, was itself front and centre, set within its own private space courtesy some moveable walls, Coup d'Oeil (20102011, 2013). It comprised six life-size sculptures of standing women situated, as a group, all facing the same direction, all nude and all seemingly randomly spattered and streaked with messy, liberal applications of coloured slips. We have come to so strongly associate such a painterly application of colour with abstraction and the two-dimensional canvas that it cannot but be jarring to see it in a sculptural application. And while Venter's entire exhibition is thusly shaped, it is still an 'in your face' factor with each and every work, assertively pushing its way to the visual fore. Coup d'Oeil #.6, for instance, may sculpturally comprise the sculpture of a woman standing with her feet slightly spread and her arms outstretched in an indeterminate gesture (is she welcoming with open arms? Is she about to say something?) but what we initially encounter is her marring: messy white Slip liberally applied to hands, forearms and belly and dribbling down her torso and along both her legs (and note the occasional brush strokes in all of that as well), the odd splashes of blue on her right hip, thigh and knee and the fact that her head and upper chest are absolutely unblemished. Of the six figures comprising the series, she is the least marked.

Okay, so it is possible to interpret Venter's applications of slip as perhaps references to the cladding of the figure that is clothing, but it is more sensibly read as a reference to the fact that a lot of the classical statuary that we see today--the Greek stuff, I mean--was originally patinated in

some apparently rather lurid colours. And that works when the architectural is brought back into things, when the work inclusive of columns is dealt with. Metanarrative Series: Metanarrative is made up of a set of clay pillars before which are set two aforementioned figures. They are installed in a line at right angles to the architectural context and, one of them - the furthest from the pillars - is that of a baby, a tiny figure king on its back, its body frozen in twisted motion. The other figure, set between the child and the pillars, is barely recognisable as that of a person. It looks more like a slightly pyramidal mound of clothing. But it is indeed a figure - a woman, so heavily veiled by an enveloping burka as to be entirely bodily obscured. We fill in the figure beneath the veil ourselves courtesy the context of pattern recognition. Like Venter's nudes, this one too has been spattered with white slip - and heavily so. This is not a symbolic cladding of the figure, nor is it a reference to the patination of statuary. This is something other. The baby nearby is unmarked, entirely clean, as most babies are, devoid of the marks and scars of life experience, whereas the veiled woman kneeling (I think) before the columns is covered with them. Innocence and experience.

So: that brings us back to Coup d'Oell and those six powerful figures of self-possessed women standing before us, all marked and symbolically spattered and brushed with the marks of experience, but in no way held in check by them. Standing fast. Standing true.
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Author:McElroy, Gil
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2014
Words:1177
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