New York

Kay Hassan

Jack Shainman Gallery

Johannesburg-based artist Kay Hassan’s New York solo debut may have signaled a departure to viewers familiar with his large-scale figu- rative collages, composed of torn billboard advertisements, his found- object sculptures, and his room-size installations, one of which re-creates a miner’s shabby living quarters. Those works have received significant attention from museum curators in Europe and South Africa (a midcareer survey was recently held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery), and have also been included in prominent exhibitions of contemporary African art that have toured the United States. This exhibition, however, presented a new series of large-scale color photographs depicting shredded clothing that has washed up on the beaches of Mozambique. While these images lack the narrative drive that characterizes many of his other works, Hassan’s interest in repurposing for art what is discarded by society at large remains constant.

These images, plainly representational, yet evocative of Abstract Expressionist painting, are shot through with the garish colors of industrially dyed, sweatshop-produced, and globally distributed attire: bubble-gum pink, cobalt blue, royal purple, lime green, electric red. Some works show the clothes filling the frame entirely, implying an endless sea of scraps; others give a sense of context by presenting sand peeking through the middens or surprisingly clear water lapping at the fabric.

Seen en masse, the images can be unsettling. The shirts and pants look like kelp, and remind viewers of humankind’s continued (and continually reckless) interventions into the natural environment. The iniquities of the globalized economy likewise come to mind. Mozambique, according to the International Monetary Fund’s 2008 World Economic Outlook Report, has an emerging and developing economy, and could conceivably make use of leftover goods from a first-world economy. Why, then, do they arrive only as unusable dross? Ultimately, what can’t be ascertained about this debris is most unnerving. Where precisely did these clothes come from? How did they end up on the shores of southeast Africa?

If “Mozambique Series,” 2008, is meant in part to critique wasteful consumerism by offering an example of its negative effects, it is difficult to understand why
 Hassan has chosen to print 
the images at an unneces
sarily outsize scale (one 
photograph was nearly
 seven feet tall; several others were roughly three by 
four feet). But the large 
print size, at least, can be 
said to allow these images 
to be more easily compared with photographs
 by artists, such as Andreas 
Gursky, who seem not only 
to recapitulate excessive
ness with their luxury objects but to valorize it. By presenting waste on the same spectacular scale as Gursky does stock exchange trading floors and hotel interiors, Hassan might be fighting fire with fire. If so, these images then can be understood as part of a lineage that includes muckraking photojournalism. One wonders, though, how well Hassan’s critiques will fare once the photographs have been removed from the politically engaged context the exhibition’s press materials gave them. Outside of this environment, their prettiness and abstraction may work against the artist’s intentions.

Brian Sholis