Jane Alexander and the Dangers of Success
South African artist Jane Alexander came to the attention of the art world decades ago with her 1985/86 sculpture The Butcher Boys. The work is composed of three life-size male figures sitting in a row on a bench; their postures are at turns "doctor's office waiting room" or "athletes on the bench." Their pallid, grayish bodies are naked except for weird-looking codpieces, their heads monstrous and sprouting horns, their eyes wholly black and shiny, their features animal-like.
The Butcher Boys, created in apartheid South Africa, became an artistic symbol of the country's cruel oppression of its black populace. It's easy to project a critique of the system onto these animalistic humanoid forms. Strange, brutal and surreal in appearance, they remind me of the artist Matthew Barney, creator of the visually riveting and disturbing Cremaster Cycle movies, in his full regalia with horns and what looks like a prosthetic female pudenda. Of course, Alexander's work predates Barney's by about a decade. And Barney's body makeup even mimicked the somewhat chalky surface of Alexander's reinforced plaster figures. This work likely influenced Barney as well as other artists today — earlier this year, Alexander's lawyers made copyright claims against the band Die Antwoord for the use of a Butcher Boys-influenced figure in their music video.
"Jane Alexander: Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)," currently on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, doesn't include Butcher Boys, but instead a more recent selection of works. The traveling exhibition, organized by the Museum for African Art, New York, is the artist's first solo exhibition in the United States — and, incidentally, the first solo exhibition of a woman artist in the CAMH's main gallery since 2007.
"Cape of Good Hope" presents a number of tableaux containing what's become the artist's trademark human-animal hybrid figures. The most successful of these is Infantry (2008-2010), which presents a long line of 27 slender, life-size figures marching/goosestepping down a red carpet, three abreast. Their heads are modeled after the African painted wolf, and their bodies are spotted like the animal's fur. All the heads are turned to the side as if paying tribute to their commander as they move by in an organized division/pack. The fascist references are anything but subtle.
When referencing an army, the multiple figures work well, but in other tableaux, like African Adventure (1999-2002) and Bom Boys (1998), it just becomes overkill. There are any number of strange things going on in African Adventure, and it's open to a variety of readings. The iron-rich red dirt beneath a number of the figures is highly evocative, especially for anyone who grew up playing in the stuff. And this is Texas red dirt, as customs regulations apparently don't allow dirt importation. Alexander had to get a local approximation, one similar in appearance to the African version.
The dirt is a great surface, but it's neatly contained in a rectangle edged with wood. It really should spill out unevenly or occupy an entire corner of the room. On the dirt is a child's pedal car driven by an ape-faced figure, as well as a hooded man dragging a host of machetes, sickles and toy tractors on strings after him. Then there's a trio of small, animal-faced fiberglass figures in business suits standing on wooden TNT boxes, a pale monkey-faced doll in a christening dress sitting in a wheelchair...and so on. Suffice to say there's a lot going on. It's a multifaceted narrative that needs to be edited down. Any one of these little groupings would be stronger on its own in the dirt field.
The same goes for the Bom Boys, a collection of child-size figures, the only ones with animal masks rather than animal heads. One or two would be powerful. But in this cluster of nine figures, variously clothed or masked, the effect is diluted. The viewer may or may not pick up on the exact inspiration, but in the artist's gallery talk, she said they were inspired by the gangs of homeless children who lived near her Cape Town apartment, banding together for survival. It's tragic source material, but standing on a painted grid of gray squares of MDF, the figures seem sterile and unengaging. To be fair to Alexander, her works fare better in site-specific installations. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition shows a number of the pieces from the CAMH show installed out of doors, in courtrooms, churches or industrial-looking buildings. The environments help shore up the work. The same is true of Alexander's black-and-white photo slideshow, featuring her figures inserted into various settings.
Alexander lives in a country with a history — and a present — that is rich in highly charged subject matter. In early works, she tapped that vein and channeled some of it to the viewer. But in this show, the animal-human figures feel like well-worn shtick — in one way, Alexander may be a victim of her own success. The worst thing about the show is the predominance of figures cast in fiberglass. I understand why they're done this way; it's much sturdier and more resilient than the early plaster work. (I don't know if this is a factor, but fiberglass is also lighter to ship to the art venues of Europe and North and South America if you are an international artist based at the southern tip of the African continent.) Fiberglass lets you do multiple casts — all the kids in the Bom Boys tableau seem to have the same basic form. You can farm out the casting to make bigger and better (?) installations to meet the demand for your work.
But despite all the practical advantages of fiberglass, its surface and connotations are deadly to Alexander's content. Fiberglass works at Disneyland, or if you are making shiny pop culture-saturated sculptures like, say, Murakami. And painted plaster worked so well in The Butcher Boys. The only time I saw the work was in 1995 at the Venice Biennale, but I still remember its haunting strangeness, the powdery-looking surface of the flesh. Those sculptures had an edge, a rawness and a presence that got you in a visceral way. The ones in the CAMH aren't Disney- or Murakami-glossy, but even in matte fiberglass they feel too much like decor at a surrealist amusement park.
The largest work is in the center of the gallery. Security (2007) is a chain-link pen inside a larger chain-link pen. Both are topped with razor wire. Inside the smaller fence is an armless figure with a bird head, its knees bent backwards in bird fashion. A layer of old, industrial, red-rubber gloves and sickles are strewn around the outside path. The pile of gloves and tools references anonymous manual labor as well as the piles of clothes at Nazi concentration camps. While at other installations a security guard was hired to patrol the perimeter, in the CAMH incarnation, what looks like a goat- or deer-headed figure seems to be taking the shift. This should be disturbing, and indeed the installation seems to shout, "Look at me, Look at me, I am disturbing!" Sure, you can see references to borders, internment, surveillance, Gitmo...but somehow it just doesn't go deep enough — it feels contrived.
The lighting may be another factor in the less than overwhelming impact of the work. I ran into Troy Schulze (the multitalented performer, director, writer — sometimes for the Houston Press — and assistant producer of KUHA's The Front Row) at the show. As an art and theater person, he was quick to comment on the evenly dim illumination. More specific or even more theatrical lighting could make a difference.
"Cape of Good Hope" suffers overall in comparison to early and iconic Alexander work like The Butcher Boys. But as I was leaving the show I saw Harvester, a 1997-98 plaster figure, a forlorn little ape-man sitting in a chair, his hands meekly folded in his lap, black brogues over his bare feet. The work has a handmade simplicity and a quietly poignant presence. It speaks volumes without a lot of overwrought or heavy-handed symbolism or a cast of dozens. Alexander needs to take a long, hard look at the kind of art that first brought her acclaim — and imitators. In her more recent work, she's lost track of the qualities that made the early stuff powerful.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.