The recent auction sale of Jane Alexander’s 1986 sculpture, Untitled, draws attention to a compelling artist.
For a while now, the imagination of the South African art collector has been stuck in the past. It is a far more distant past than the grim one evoked by sculptor Jane Alexander’s untitled student work from 1986 depicting a seated male figure with Dalmatian-like skin colouring, which on Monday night was acquired by an anonymous South African buyer for a headline-grabbing sum of R5.5-million (€396,400 including buyer’s premium) at a Johannesburg auction, setting a new record for a work of contemporary art sold at auction in the country. It is possible to precisely date the year of this nostalgic return: 1938.
Many things – some newsworthy at the time, others not – happened that year. The self-styled New Group of painters – which included Walter Battiss, Gregoire Boonzaier, Frieda Lock and Alexis Preller, now all sought-after names at auction – announced their modern painterly sensibilities with group exhibitions in Cape Town and Pretoria. Landscape painter JH Pierneef, whose name still summons strange affection in his homeland, accepted a public commission to paint the Union Buildings, a government symbol of the unified white state in Pretoria. Irma Stern, a German-trained expressionist painter who is currently South Africa’s most valuable artist at auction, travelled to Dakar, where she painted street scenes depicting “Arabs” and “Africans”. At the same time as South Africa’s white cosmopolitan avant-garde was fashioning a peculiar brand of vernacular modernism, painter Ernest Mancoba was planning escape. In 1938, Mancoba obtained a bursary and loan from the Bantu Welfare Trust to study in Paris, later moving from there to Denmark for a period, where he cofounded the influential CoBrA group. Unlike his white counterparts, Mancoba, who died in exile in France in 2002, has not enjoyed anywhere near the same acclaim or visibility in post-apartheid South Africa’s robust secondary market – this despite being hailed by art historian Elza Miles as “the first urban-born South African artist to break the tyranny of representative imitation and the western canons of proportion”. It was Miles, a former newspaper art critic and wife of Afrikaans novelist John Miles, who owned one of the two important works by Alexander that went under the hammer on Monday night at auction house Strauss & Co. Unpretentiously displayed in her narrow Melville home for many years, West Coast African Angel (1985-86) depicts a child-sized figure transposed with the head of a flamingo and wings of a goose. It was knocked down at R600,000 (€43,270 excluding buyer’s premium), bringing much-needed financial relief to its destitute former owner, Miles, a grossly neglected art critic who in the early 1990s taught art history at the Federated Union of Black Artists while working on her monograph about Mancoba, Lifeline Out of Africa (1994). West Coast African Angel formed part of a series of figurative sculptures produced while Alexander was completing her MFA degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Exhibited at the now-defunct Market Gallery in Newtown in 1986, Alexander’s show included her well-known Butcher Boys (1985-86), a trio of classically sculpted, seated male figures with bestial facial features, as well as the untitled seated figure sold on Monday night. The exhibition generated a favourable review in the left-leaning Weekly Mail, prompting Cape Town artist and writer Sue Williamson, who was researching her book Resistance Art in South Africa (1989), to fly up to Johannesburg to meet the artist. “I thought then, and still do, that it was remarkable that a student had made such an extraordinarily mature series of works, technically highly accomplished and conceptually powerful, pulling no punches,” said Williamson in an interview. Despite the critical success of Alexander’s debut show, only one work sold. The Butcher Boys, which was priced at R1500, went unsold and languished in storage in Alexander’s parents’ house until the South African National Gallery in Cape Town acquired it in 1991, where it is on permanent public display. The lone male figure placed in close proximity to the Butcher Boys was acquired shortly after the show came down by Miles’ daughter, then an undergraduate student, who paid for the work on instalment. “The truth is that the original buyer saw something, in 1986, that few others could see – and was prepared to spend R800 (€58), to become the custodian of the object and the world it evoked and contained,” wrote John Nankin, a pioneering performance artist and well-known Facebook polemicist the day after the Johannesburg auction of Alexander’s work. Nankin is married to Alexander. “Of the relatively informed audience that would have seen the work at the theatre-gallery, many – judging by remarks in the visitors’ book – saw only Satanism in the horns and attitude of the figures,” he added. Alexander does not do Facebook, nor does she Tweet. Despite being a visible presence on the Cape Town art scene, regularly attending openings, talks and performances, Alexander eschews publicity and prefers not to do press interviews. She is, in the words of Spanish philosopher Pep Subirós, a great admirer and latterly also a clear-sighted interpreter of her work, “a sort of secret artist”. This is no hyperbolic claim. In an era where the art fair has definitively eclipsed the biennale, and art auction catalogues are confused by some as art history textbooks, Alexander remains at far remove from the hurly-burly of the market. She is not represented by a dealer and does not produce work for sale through commercial galleries, even despite occasionally showing with dealers Jack Shainman and Michael Stevenson, preferring instead to exhibit in response to invitations by museums and biennales. “Whether it has benefitted Jane to take the decision not to be represented by specific galleries is hard to say,” stated Williamson. “Certainly a number of international curators are aware of her work and have selected it for important exhibitions, but I think that in today’s art world, institutions think twice before exhibiting an un-represented artist for the simple reason of logistics.” This is not the only factor that makes Alexander’s consistent visibility all the more remarkable. Born in Johannesburg in 1959, Alexander completed her undergraduate fine art studies there in 1982. She briefly taught English as a second language in Rehoboth, Namibia, before enrolling in a Master’s programme, which she completed in 1988. Currently a professor at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, her skilfully manufactured, psychologically immanent and emotionally austere sculptural tableaus are grounded in two key concerns, both of which are antithetical to the drift of contemporary art globally: the human figure and ethics. Rather than enact direct social criticism, her tableaus present allegorical scenes that “objectify observations of the character of a particular time and place from a particular social context,” as the artist phrased it in her 1988 Master’s thesis. As a young artist, Alexander was interested in the work of two American sculptors, Edward Kienholz and Duane Hanson. While her work is rooted in classical figuration, it often invents new and hybrid biological forms that become expressive elements in her complex, situation-based tableaus. Meaning is often relational in Alexander’s tableaus, and derives partly from the remarkable social life of her sculptures, which are mostly still owned by the artist. Alexander has sold few sculptures since 1999, a strategy that has enabled her to present her sculptures in new and unexpected relationships, often in non-traditional settings (including cathedral, chapel, courtroom, park, beach, private sculpture garden) in various cities around the world. This mobility has earned her widespread audiences and admirers, including curator Simon Njami, who included the artist’s many-figured installation, African Adventure (1999-2002), a sombre deliberation on South Africa’s new political dispensation, on Africa Remix. More recently, responding to Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope), a career survey of her work organised by the Museum of African Art and shown in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter remarked that Alexander’s work offers no decisive answers: “What there is is moral gravity – political, poetic – and a deep, peculiar beauty that doggedly clings to margins, where the mysteries are, and soars.” Alexander, whose principled silence should not be confused with disinterest, was reportedly moved by Cotter’s remarks. It is easy to understand why: they were tendered in direct response to her work, which is very different from the current hullabaloo around the sale of her student work. Auction reporting is not art criticism.
Jane Alexander will be showing two works from her retrospective survey, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope), at Stevenson Johannesburg from 18 November 2013 to 7 February 2014.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.