Born 05 February 1953
Penny Siopis is an important innovator with paint. Her formal experiments in the studio follow on Christo Coetzee’s earlier trials in the late 1950s, and are a significant precursor to the eruptive surfaces of younger contemporary painters like Zander Blom. Lace Cloth was painted in 1983 when Siopis was still teaching fine art at Technikon Natal (now Durban University of Technology). Lace Cloth forms part of a break-out series of thickly painted studies of cakes and confections displayed on tables. Two earlier works from this series were selected for the 1982 Cape Town Triennial. After her move to Johannesburg, Siopis continued to paint cake-like structures, many trapped in lace surrounds. Lace Cloth anticipates larger canvases like Three Lace Cloths (1984, acquired by Chase Bank Manhattan) and Table Setting (1984, acquired by Iziko South African National Gallery). Colloquially referred to as her “cake paintings”, these works negotiate painting’s tradition of illusionistic representation while presenting the canvas as a site of material experiment. The process of producing this artwork is integral to its meaning. After laying down her impasto ground with a palette knife, Siopis further accentuates the physicality of paint with the aid of cake-icing instruments like decorative nozzles. “When she was growing up in Vryburg in the Northern Cape, her family owned a small bakery, which was attached to their home,”writes art historian Jennifer Law. “This bakery was an integral part of the artist’s early childhood, serving as the backdrop to some of her most powerful primal memories, both comforting and traumatic.”1 Siopis, who studied painting at Rhodes University, emphasises the ambiguity of her cake images, stating that they offer “sensuality with criticality”.2 The cakes infer human ritual and celebrations marking the passing of time. They are sublimated markers of decadence too, a theme she explored in iconic paintings Still Life with Watermelon and Other Things (1985) and Melancholia (1986) featuring sumptuous table settings. Equally important for Siopis, though, is the medium itself, oil paint, which she speaks of as “an object, another body, not only a medium through which to render an image of a body”.3 She refers to her richly textured cake paintings as behaving like human skin: they subtly transform over time.

Penny Siopis
Lace Cloth
oil on canvas
90 by 120cm excluding frame