Sean O’Toole

  • picks August 21, 2019

    Misheck Masamvu

    Best known for his neo-expressionist paintings of figures incarcerated in color, Misheck Masamvu has recently added text to his armory. In 2016, the twilight of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s oppressive rule, the artist transcribed his free-verse poem “Still” (“Still in prison,” read a line) onto his Volkswagen campervan and drove it around Harare in a conscious baiting of authority. An example of Masamvu’s self-described “dysfunctional political commentary” introduces his current exhibition of figure drawings and not-quite-abstract paintings. An uncredited text composed from vinyl

  • picks March 17, 2019

    “Still Here Tomorrow to High Five You Today”

    The wall texts for this exhibition of work by nearly two dozen artists engaging with African time, myth, and futurity draw from a durable pantheon of speculative thinkers—among them Ben Okri, Sun Ra, and Octavia Butler—to elaborate thematic displays spread throughout seven rooms. Curator Azu Nwagbogu extracted his title, however, from an eccentric monologue by the Royal Tart Toter, an aging gingerbread man in the animated series Adventure Time. The reference is fitting. Western pop flotsam has been washing up all across the globe for decades, including in pre-independence Senegal.

    Senegalese

  • picks January 16, 2019

    Mia Chaplin

    Mia Chaplin’s energetic impasto paintings describing young women going about their lives are awhirl with dirty pinks, muddied yellows, and shades of green—notably, olive, celadon, and moss. These sullied tones also feature in nine papier-mâché constructions that mimic domestic vessels, as well as in the vertiginous textile installation Waterfall (all works 2018), which is composed of a floral-print fabric that trails into a mass on the floor. Especially in the artist’s five large figurative canvases, this degraded palette, achieved by using dirty solvent, proves strangely compelling, both magical

  • picks October 23, 2018

    Mitchell Gilbert Messina

    Mitchell Gilbert Messina is a post-internet collagist whose practice humorously examines the contradictions and entrenched hegemonies of postcolonial South Africa. The centerpiece of his installation Fluxus Troupe Steal Cruise Liner (all works cited, 2018) is a twelve-minute film about a luxury cruise ship named the Symphonia, which is hijacked by a group of radical Fluxists and rechristened A Comuna Fluxus. The troupe initiates a “participatory social revolution” that sees the ship’s passengers voluntarily check their “power fantasies and social hierarchy” in favor of creating a communal food

  • picks September 14, 2018

    Maja Maljević

    In 2007, seven years after relocating to South Africa at age twenty-seven, Belgrade-born Maja Maljević participated in a print workshop at David Krut Workshop; she has since regularly experimented with techniques that evoke her encrusted style of abstract painting and collaborated with the Johannesburg studio’s printmaker, Jillian Ross. The centerpiece of her exhibition “Polytekton” is a group of sixty-one unique and individually numbered prints, “Documents for the People” (all works 2018). Nested in the democratic title of the print series, which shows off eight different techniques (including

  • DAVID GOLDBLATT

    Photographer David Goldblatt was a subtle yet incisive witness to South Africa’s tumultuous system of apartheid. Produced in collaboration with the photographer before his passing in June, this retrospective will present images from two photobooks that defined his liberal-humanist method: On the Mines (1973), an investigation into the extensive capital and labor involved in digging for gold, and In Boksburg (1982), a dispassionate account of “legislated whiteness” in a conservative mining town adjoining Johannesburg. In the late 1990s, Goldblatt began documenting the

  • picks July 16, 2018

    “Pulling at Threads”

    Framed as a meditation on craft in contemporary artistic practice, this exhibition marshals works by eight artists—including Nick Cave, Abdoulaye Konaté, and William Kentridge—to stage an argument about the postdigital “return to the haptic.” Beading, collage, sewing, and weaving feature prominently. Many of the selected works invite what film theorist Laura U. Marks, in her 2002 book Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, described as “a small, caressing gaze.” They include Igshaan Adams’s Oorskot, 2016, a fragile columnar form made from beads, fabric, rope, and wire; and Nick Cave’s

  • picks July 13, 2018

    Jan Fabre

    In September 2016, three years after this career-spanning survey of Jan Fabre’s performance oeuvre first opened in Rome, the Belgian artist and theater maker donned a business suit, mounted a white racing bicycle, and pedaled around a velodrome in Lyon. The action marked the local opening of curator Germano Celant’s engrossing deep dive into Fabre’s maverick performance work, and was attended by a coterie of cycling legends, including Eddy Merckx, whose former world record Fabre set out not to beat. Celant’s updated exhibition is bookended with this performance, An attempt not to beat the record

  • Athi-Patra Ruga

    Athi-Patra Ruga’s sculpture in the collection of Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Proposed Model for Tseko Simon Nkoli Memorial, 2017, portrays a reclining gold figure embellished with fabric roses and baubles. It exemplifies an opulent—almost baroque—strand of figuration that has taken hold in South Africa of late, but also, in its honoring of the anti-apartheid and gay-rights activist of its title, bears out the interlinked focus on racial and gender struggle in this artist’s flamboyant work.

    Comprising seventeen wool-and-thread tapestries and a single-channel

  • picks November 30, 2017

    “You & I”

    Collectivism has been a major force in South African art pretty much since the New Group, a vanguard of white modernist painters, declared themselves, in 1938, “united against junk.” Rather than didactically survey artistic associations and cooperatives in their home country, though, curators Ziphozenkosi Dayile and Kemang wa Lehulere—both members of the influential Cape Town arts group Gugulective—opted instead to elliptically parse ideas and demonstrations of collectivity for this space’s inaugural exhibition. A ranging and worldly affair, “You & I” dutifully includes works by actual

  • picks November 06, 2017

    Cameron Platter

    In 2013, South African artist Cameron Platter collaborated with weavers at ELC Art and Craft Center Rorke’s Drift, a storied art hub in rural KwaZulu-Natal province, on wool tapestries. Their abstract forms are based on digital collages the artist created from DVD covers for interracial pornographic films found online. Rather than amplify and ironize the noise of this libidinal media, Platter’s hand-spun tapestries obscure the source of his ludic play. His latest exhibition, titled “ZOL,” includes five colored-pencil drawings inspired by the same source material. It is the translation across

  • picks September 05, 2017

    Dorothy Amenuke

    In 2003, artist kąrî'kạchä seid’ou joined the faculty of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Ghana’s prestigious art school in Kumasi, and through his “emancipatory art teaching” program, he ushered in the artistic experimentation and material innovation that this West African country is now known for. Sculptor Dorothy Amenuke, who enrolled in a BFA program at KNUST in 1989 and became a faculty member in 2009, is the art school’s only female lecturer. Amenuke’s latest exhibition, “Twists Turns and Broken Doors,” starts with Habitation-Inhabitation (all works 2015–17), an

  • picks August 11, 2017

    “Exhibition Histories and Afrofictions”

    In his infamous 1984 exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal,” cocurated with Kirk Varnedoe at the Museum of Modern Art, William Rubin argued that the West’s absorption with the cultural objects of Africa and Oceania was both a “critical instrument” and a “countercultural battering ram.” He used juxtaposition to visually argue his point, an orthodox museological technique that curators Nkule Mabaso and Lucy Steeds cleverly employ here to draw attention to the often-distorted construction of African identity by outsiders. Organized into three parts and composed of

  • picks July 10, 2017

    “Calibrating Wonder”

    In a future history of South African art, Cape Town–based artist Daniella Mooney should receive due credit for her exploratory, left-field sculpture practice, which, since her Terry Riley–quoting BFA show in 2009, has eschewed the dominant rubrics of postcolonial identity and spectacular monumentality. Her contribution to this showcase of sixteen artists, organized by designer and artist Lyall Sprong, includes Three New Wands I, II, and III (all works cited, 2017), eccentric fabrications in wood of a wand she made as an adolescent. Mooney’s attenuated and bulbous pieces are hopelessly clumsy,

  • picks April 25, 2017

    Kirsten Beets

    Displayed in a window that faces onto a road trafficked by tourists, Kirsten Beets’s oil-on-paper painting Only the End of the World Again (all works 2017) depicts a tyrannosaurus rex, with its wimpy arms, attacking the sun-kissed Atlantic suburb of Sea Point in Cape Town. The real action, though, takes place in the painting’s foreground, where beachgoers, some shaded by umbrellas, sit staring at the ocean, oblivious to the nearby destruction. Eschewing the claustrophobic urban horror of King Kong and Godzilla films, Beets lightly deploys fantasy to obliquely comment on South Africa’s fraught

  • picks March 07, 2017

    Phumzile Khanyile

    It helps to know that Soweto, South Africa–born photographer Phumzile Khanyile, whose debut exhibition caps a year of playful self-interrogation with a camera, doesn’t have a regular look: Her personal style is an elaborate work in progress. In one of the thirty-two photographs collectively titled “Plastic Crowns” (all works 2016) inaugurating the Market Photo Workshop’s new premises, the artist wears a merlot-colored wig and titular headpiece while inflating a pink balloon, her cheeks swollen like a trumpet player at work. The wig is not a prop: Khanyile—who was born in 1991, two years after

  • picks February 15, 2017

    “Women’s Work”

    In a 2009 performance titled Knitwit, maverick artist Barend de Wet, sporting a churchly suit and calling himself the “Knitting Bull,” loudly—like a lay preacher—implored his audience to “Knit!” In light of the sixty-four mostly contemporary works by thirty-three artists and collectives assembled for this concise survey of weaving, knitting, sewing, lace making, tapestry, beading, and embroidery practices, his entreaty was also a declaration of fact. De Wet is represented in this exhibition by Crochet (Shroud), 2013, a candy-colored knitted garment draped over a standing figure. It appears next

  • picks February 14, 2017

    Jody Paulsen

    Jody Paulsen did not have art historian Robert Pincus-Witten in mind when, in a summary of his personal aesthetic credo, he told an interviewer in 2015: “Right now, artistically, I’m in a maximalist phase. I don’t like any blank spaces.” If anything, Paulsen was describing his generous approach to composition in his felt collages, pieces featuring pithy text slogans referencing his mixed-race queer identity that, as finished work, operate as soft sculpture and exuberant public confessionals. His propensity toward visual surplus is also a hallmark of this show: Here, Paulsen manages to fit nearly

  • “Africans in America”

    South African artists, dealers, and scholars often mourn the demise of the Johannesburg Biennale, a short-lived experiment in post-apartheid city branding and global outreach that ran for just two editions, in 1995 and 1997, invoking its legacy in interviews, essays, and tribute exhibitions. In 2010, the Goodman Gallery launched In Context, an occasional series of citywide exhibitions and events that aimed to address the void left by the defunct biennial—it is less a successor than an ambitious stopgap until something new emerges. To cocurate the second edition with her, Goodman Gallery

  • picks December 08, 2016

    Tilo Steireif

    In 2012, Tilo Steireif, a Swiss artist whose research-based practice has favored photography and installation, began work on a suite of aquarelle and ink cartoons inspired by German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser’s posthumously published novel, The Robber. The labor posed two challenges: It was Steireif’s first foray into watercolor, and The Robber—a digressive novel with a weak plot first published in German in 1972 and in English in 2000—doesn’t easily lend itself to visual exegesis in the way that the Book of Genesis did for Robert Crumb. Walser’s novel begins briskly: “Edith loves him.”