The Wrong Pills
12 November – 3 December 2011
Opening Saturday 12 November at 14:00
Willie Saayman’s first solo exhibition at GALLERY AOP teems with images of zombie-like figures. His drawings, whether oil-based media or pencil on paper, abound with figures that seem to float in an indeterminate, entropic space, often filled with graffiti-like writing that hovers in mid-air around them. They inadvertently occupy one’s perception with bewildering and yet oddly familiar mask-like figures that combine to have a weird effect, best described as a ‘disquieting strangeness’. The strangeness of Saayman’s figures can, however, be related to similar type of figures found in the work of James Ensor, Jean Dubuffet, Jean-Michel Basquiat and A R Penck.
“The figures, or characters as I would like to call them, are influenced by graphic novels. The same characters appear in different works, sometimes shifting roles and making one question whether it is their morality that changes depending on their circumstances, or not. They tell the stories of outsiders, vagrant characters and transient beings. These figures are also often cropped in a manner that is more akin to the processes one associates with storyboards and with photography. There is darkness in the figures of these new works, but humour too, however wry or grim. There is still a lot of blood in these works but it seems as if the carnage is more vibrant, orchestrated than before. In my stories it is difficult to tell whether the good guys are really good or merely indulging their darker sides.”
Saayman’s art draws on a long tradition of graffiti art, as well as other traditions of outsider art, and street art: punk, children’s art, skater culture and graphic novels. His latest body of work also summons memories from his youth growing up surfing at a time when surfers were seen to be transgressive.
Saayman’s interest in graffiti art can be traced back to him discovering the work of the Hungarian photographer Georges Brassaï. After World War I Brassaï moved to Paris where he was fascinated by the graffiti in the city. For years he documented the idiosyncratic, jarred, and cryptic marks on walls, tunnels, fences and gates that expressed the desires of ordinary citizens who wanted to leave behind some personal, permanent trace in what had been traumatic times. A record of the streets, these layers of marks were palimpsests: words that could not be spoken, pictures that could not be shown, the quiet desires of people laid bare anonymously in a way that was raw, unexpected and shocking. In Brassaï’s works there was no pretense – the streets did not lie. The little bits of text in Saayman’s drawings are actually cryptic ciphers: he removes most of the vowels from the words in the titles of the images, cajoling the viewer into trying to make sense of the jumbled letters.
Reflected in Saayman’s work one identifies a trend towards reviving such categories as originality, primitivism, and authenticity, attempting through them to renew and revitalize art itself. It is part of the burgeoning popular interest in ‘alternative’ visual phenomena of all kinds – vintage styles, kitsch, graffiti, zine culture, handmade objects – and a certain post-modern ‘de-skilling’ in art practice. Saayman’s art is a form of art, although defying all conventions of painterly traditions, that all can understand, indeed that all can practice. His art celebrates the fact that some people, for some reason or another, have escaped cultural conditioning and social conformism and have invented new practices and have come to occupy new spaces.
Willie Saayman was born in Robertson, Western Cape in 1962 and attended Jan van Riebeeck High School in Cape Town. His first solo exhibition was mounted at the Association for Visual Arts, Cape Town in 1990. At the time, Iziko South African National Gallery acquired a video work of his, Channel Zero – An Evening’s Viewing. He had solo exhibitions in Johannesburg and Cape Town in 1992, 1999 and in 2007. He was part of the seminal group drawing exhibition, Draw Links at GALLERY AOP in October 2010 and some of his drawings from this show were acquired by the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Willie Saayman lives in Johannesburg and edits television commercials for a living.