'CC - Unlimited power' 2010 Barnard Gallery Art South Africa Summer Renée Hollerman

Although environmental degradation is possibly the single most pressing concern of out time, there are few artists in South Africa whose work seeks to engage with this and the numerous issues associated with it. This is not to say that artists should be clamouring to the cause, but simply that there are few for whom it has proven worthwhile subject matter.

There are good reasons for this. Aside from the sheer mind-numbing enormity of the problem, it is sometimes difficult to transcend an array of unpalatable approaches, ranging from pedantic didacticism to New Age feel good vibes. Often, people feel disempowered and uncomfortable at the mention of environmental issues. It is therefore difficult subject matter on many counts, but fertile ground for all the same reasons.

The paintings and sculptures that comprise Robert Slingsby's CC - Unlimited power exhibition at the Barnard Gallery are situated within this awkward gap. Two years in the making, this body of work seeks to address the manifold effects of the unconstrained consumption and exploitation that have marked the last century, encapsulated by a global economic recession. The resulting environmental discord is captured in some degree by Slingsby's awkward metaphorical trope "car/bone" a combination of two seemingly unrelated words, which, seeks to disrupt and shift the typical associations of the word “carbon". While the car is symbolic of the speed and trajectory of mechanisation, modernisation and capitalism, and the will to freedom and self determination inherent to democracy, it is also the harbinger of a world paradigm dependent on fossil fuels for energy. Bone, on the other hand, organic and inert, represents the natural end of life, the final loss of energy, and the gradual decomposition of the body. It is an incongruous reminder of the irredeemable loss that will result from our current way of life left unchecked.

Slingsby takes up the car as a visual signifier throughout the exhibition, but using the 'car/bone' metaphor in a limited number of works, the large open structured, bone-shaped steel car sculpture, Car-bone (2010) being the most obvious. Beyond these fairly literal representations it is not explored much further. Cars however feature extensively. In CC - Backfire (2009) a car is depicted with cartoon like immediacy in vibrant primary reds and blues. Filling the sizable canvas, its wheels explode from the chassis as a fire erupts beneath it and noxious fumes billow from the exhaust. In paintings like Butter side up (2008) it becomes abstracted and integrated into a more uniform field where aeroplanes and rockets are scattered across a shifting plane interspersed with stars, zigzags, spirals, stripes, crosses and dots.

Throughout the show Slingsby's interest in the pictographic visual language of the San is evident. For over thirty years the artist has recorded the petroglyphs scored into rocks in the Richtersveld, a record of San ritualistic spiritual practise rooted in a belief in the harmonious balance between nature and humankind. Slingsby's appreciation for the wisdom of these ancient practises and peoples informs and inspires his approach to his work as well as his mark-making and composition. Forms are reduced and simplified - sometimes rendered solely through line - while archetypal shapes and figures are an ever-present short-hand. Similar to the way in which the San engraved into rock surfaces, Slingsby inscribes into thick acrylic surface of his canvas so that lines used to delineate forms become recessed grooves to create different effects.

In most of the paintings Slingsby alternates between simple iconic compositions and more complex decentred arrangements. Of those in which they are combined, Apathy of entitlement (2010) and Mechanical factor (2008) are the most successful. Apathy of entitlement is one of the few works in which people appear apart from their mechanical substitutes. Five figures float above a barren landscape containing the debris of wrecked cars that have collided with an oil well, around which a snake spirals - a potent symbol in San myths. The image evokes a dreamscape in which the fates of all depicted therein are crucially interconnected, an idea which resonated through many of the works. In mechanical factor cars of various shapes and sizes are strewn in nightmarish disarray over a frenetic background of multicoloured facets surrounding a huge toothed excavation scoop outlined in red. A figure of massively intrusive technology, it is a reminder of our capacity to reconfigure the landscape according to its presumed use value and potential profit margins.

Slingsby works hard to integrate and depict the far-reaching effects of economic power predicated on the notion of unlimited growth and resources at the expense of fragile environments and marginalised people like the Nama community of the Richtersveld, descendants of the San and Khoekhoen. Yet the overwhelming impression of the exhibition is one of mixed metaphors, with an over-reliance on the cars symbolic worth in relation to a diverse set of concerns. There is also a sense in which this subject matter gets lost in the funk and jive of the treatment. Despite complex and intensely overwhelming surfaces, the pictographic lexicon is overwhelming. Similarly, while Slingsby's technique of painterly inscription certainly pays homage to an ancient people, as a device it is over-used, resulting in images that tend to feel stylised, overworked, decorative and ironically, somewhat mechanical. Slingsby should nevertheless be applauded for his energy and commitment. One can only hope that more people would engage these issues with similar passion.


  UPDATED 2nd July 2016