Via Crucis, or stations of the cross, is all about passion and death – long before Freud. It’s a journey to Calvary, through sacred art, prayer, reflection, pain and bliss, hope and deep thought – in sum, everything we have to do at this precipitous start of a leap year, and boy, we need that extra day!
Because no one can dispute the mind-numbing soul shattering ethical mind-fuck we find ourselves in – ongoing cruelty and inhumanity and crippling divisiveness, replete with horrible shockers like Holland reverting to the Far Right and beneficent ones like the Poles ousting the haters from government. But of course, the haters are everywhere. And so, we have no choice but to steel ourselves, stay true to the best principles we can uphold, while remaining stoical – the go-to philosophy for the foreseeable future in which identity politics will maintain its paradoxically well- yet-sick hold on the world. But lest we forget, we have that precious extra day to turn things around, and there is the grace of some globally humane Calvary.

My brief – and beef – concerns figuring out where we are headed in the artworld. What light looms bright on the horizon? Any? If I’m sceptical it is for good reason – we are the traumatized victims of psyops, or psychic warfare. This has been the case since the internet wholly consumed us, reducing us to mere husks, barely alive, barely meaningful, barely true. That Covid proved to be the monstrous incubator of hate, a silo-stricken death cult, is a matter we must still deal with. But our accelerating inhumanity, our living death, anticipated for decades, is very much our intimate familiar. Which makes Billie Eilish’s searing anthem for Barbie a prophetic record of just how fucked up we are. Titled What was I made for? the song opens with the lines – ‘I used to float / now I just fall down / I used to know / but I’m not sure now / what I was made for / what was I made for?’ This is the post-existential crisis we are all suffering from. Hocked and hobbled, on our knees, our every precept and note of confidence shattered, we are incapable of grasping what is just, what right – what we were made for. In our metastasized social media, things have shifted from bad to worse to worser – we are clueless, terrified, outraged, demented, catatonic-yet-hysterical, out of our minds and out of our bodies, and most definitely not in any ecstatic way. Miserabilism is the new normal, fatality our blue and red pill.

So how in hell am I supposed to figure out what’s good, what works in the art world? Are there truths we can adhere to? Loves that continue to matter? New formations that can inspire us? ‘Taking a drive / I was an ideal / looked so alive / turns out I’m not real / just something you paid for’. When this post- existential moment hits, and we grasp just how brittle and facile the capitalist fantasy in fact is, just how empty we’ve become, how terrifyingly unreal, it behooves us to change. Not just because it’s the start of the year, but because we have no choice. As Rilke says, you have to change your life. You have to pass through the stations of the cross.

Last year saw a seismic and epistemic shift to abstraction – globally. Clearly, we were saturated with meaning, whether self-justified or justified by others. Asphyxiated, not waving but drowning, scorched by the threat or fact of cancellation, we’ve become dithering wrecks, and remain so, despite all hysterical bluster. Only abstraction made it possible to side- step a minefield of entrapments. Because, of course, hatred and judgement are always rigged. Christ did not wind up on the cross by accident, and none of us is exempt, not even those who’ve chosen hate, a toxin all the more complex because of the righteous zealotry with which it clothes itself.

Re-enter abstraction, an expression-state- affect impossible to rationally jettison, but also one by which we can as easily be bamboozled. In his essay, ‘Zombies on the walls’, Jerry Saltz asks – ‘Why does so much new abstraction look the same?’ His point? That abstraction is yet another generic product, no different to the earlier obsession with black portraiture, which will remain novel. Because, given the intensification of a divisive global neo-fascist dispensation, it is inevitable that portraiture and abstraction will continue to prevail as the dominant signatures of two opposed sectors – on the one side, those who justly continue to fight for their existential dignity and those who choose to deploy identity politics exploitatively, while, in the other camp, those who strive to conquer the burden of history through abstraction and those who cynically exploit the nonsensicality of our grotesque historical moment. Saltz has a catchy name for this latter iteration – crapstraction.

Great artists, like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, will synthesise these seemingly conflicting drives in stellar paintings such as The Stygian Silk, in which self-identity and the void become inextricable. It is this richer complexity which defines the event horizon of our leap year. For great art, at any point in history, prevails despite the dogma that consumes an age. If we are moral cripples, if we are as soulless and cruel as we systemically have become, it does not follow that our great artists will merely pander to our worthlessness. Looking at Edouard Manet’s painting, La Dame aux eventails / The Lady with Fans, 1873, I was astonished by its sheer daring, the speed and vivacity of the brushwork – the perfect synthesis of figuration and abstraction. This is where I imagine painting returning to, for over two hundred years later, no one, to my mind, has matched Manet’s bravado, his spiritedness, his outrage and wit. To survive this toxic and sickening age, we will need an equivalent daring. It is not Ai Weiwei’s moral outrage we require, flung about our heads like pails of shit – though he is right regarding our latest self-annihilating fetish, AI. Further outrage will not help us. And neither will the fathomless abyss of fakery. As for the virulent contaminant, immersive art? Yet another horror story.

I concluded last year – which, if we follow T.S. Eliot, would also be a new beginning – by visiting Whatiftheworld in Cape Town. I was there to see Paul Edmunds and Rowan Smith’s joint show. Having spent two months in Europe, it astounded me all the more just how brilliant our best artists in fact are. Smith’s spoof on classicism – tricking out adamantine marble with white cement, marble dust, and expanded polystyrene – reminded us of the perverse continuance of our obscene love affair with a long-lost ideal. Hubris will not go away. Smith’s cynically brilliant execution is, as always, breathtaking, his morbidly banal focus a perfect counterpoint to Edmunds’s steel- cornered wall works and freestanding gnomic struts. If Smith hollowly echoed the hollowness of classicism, then Edmunds affirmed the accelerated abstraction of all forms. But it was a side-show – four works from Dale Lawrence’s Midden series, holdovers from an earlier solo – which, unexpectedly and unanticipatedly, startled me most. Honey-coloured flanks of stone, I thought, until I came up close, and short, because what the works were made of in their entirety was clear packaging tape, the layers smelted together to strengthen the form, thousands of densely layered meters I fancied – turns out it’s 12 km of tape for each midden! The lunacy of it all was exhilarating, the genius indisputable.

Details Eduoard Manet, La Dame aux eventails (Lady of Fans), 1873

A midden is defined as ‘a heap or large pile of animal waste, or waste material thrown away by human beings in the past’, a geologically encrusted rune of human excess, a slice of ancient life, as archaeological as it remains current. As a mindset, a midden suggests an artist who can span history, find novelty in something ancient, or who can transform a functional product – thick clear packaging tape – into a reckoning. If our future requires a penetrating gaze, then that gaze is demonstrated in the works by Edmunds, Smith, and Lawrence. Each in their own way understands the singularity of deep insight, each unapologetic in their calculated withdrawal from dogma, each alone in their hunger for a more profound human connection – all the more so in the eco-geo- political gorefest we find ourselves in. As such, their works embody stations of the cross, yearnings toward a greater transfiguration, and an edgier grasp of the fraught fabric of the present moment.

Billie Eilish sums up not only the potential triumph of these artists, but the triumph that awaits each and every one of us, if we will simply stop raging and free ourselves from the pathological maw in which we are trapped. As Barbie resumes her post-existential quest, Eilish sonorously whispers – ‘Cause I / I don’t know how to feel / but I wanna try / I don’t know how to feel / but someday I might / someday I might’. Only when we allow for true feeling and embrace inconsolable hurt will we become human. ‘Think I forgot / how to be happy / something I’m not / but something I can be’….

WITW, Dale Lawrence Installation, Photo Matt Slater

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