Complicit Geographies – Paintings by Jeanette Unite at Eclectica Contemporary

By mapmyway
16 January 2017

Dr Danny Shorkend reviews Jeanette Unite’s work to be exhibited at Eclectica Contemporary and which will open on the 17th January.

I was fortunate to get a sneak preview of Jeanette Unite’s work to be exhibited at Eclectica Contemporary. One cannot help being sucked into the works, as the surfaces are luscious and energised – and one feels a strong compulsion to get closer and then retreat in contemplation.

Jeanette Unite has focused on the mining industry and minerals for a number of years with travels to numerous sites and countries in her quest to understand the earth and the gridding, dividing, allocation and right of ownership that make land and mineral use highly politicised and economically a source of great wealth – for some at least.

So there are many levels of interpretation when faced with these paintings. In one respect, from a purely formal point of view, the works are clearly abstract expressionistic in terms of style. Frans Kline, Robert Motherwell and Clifford Still come to mind and this would make sense considering Kevin Atkinson was her mentor, a highly accomplished “abstract” painter himself.

While there are “figurative” elements in her numerous images of mining machinery, such references can be somewhat set aside, and one is confronted by powerful line making, gestural sweeps of colour, movement and a surge of sketchy lines within carefully chosen and constructed formats and scales that demonstrate a wonderful facility in articulating the elements of art.

Furthermore, these elements curiously parallel an interest and respect for physics and in particular, chemistry. Unite, in fact often makes her own paint as she measures, stores, mixes and develops her pigments in a way that one would imagine a scientist might.

Indeed, the paintings work precisely because she has transcended simply oil, industrial or acrylic paint and created her own language – often an acidic array of colour. Even the colour black is so varied and nuanced so as to describe surfaces that resonate with potential meaning.

Yet beyond the appreciation of formal components, there are other ways in which to see her work. Her obvious reference to the mining industry precludes a purely abstract, formalist interpretation. Another parallel then may be the works similarity to the methods of Kentridge and this implicates in the process references to political and real world considerations.

In this respect, the omission of the human figure but the earth and machinery is at once disconcerting and liberating. Disconcerting, because it appears the machine has taken over as it were, plumbing the depths of the earth, breaking it apart, digging and digging in order to serve the absent overlord – and the earth can but succumb, no matter the damage it suffers or even to the one it apparently serves. However, the resources may dry up or no longer serve humanity and therefore the massive reliance we have on such resources may lead to our demise. Yet, there is also something liberating about the absence of the human figure that does not carry with it a doomsday forecast and that is the sense of elemental power of the earth itself – older, deeper and almost spiritual and beyond what one can fathom. The earth is that to which we should thus pay homage, a Romanticism without human quantification. It is the very womb by which our bodies are composed.

Jeanette Unite’s work has often been described as alchemical.

I would agree with such an assessment. There is a magical quality that these works exude, especially in their fragmented serial set-up, yet somehow whole. That should not obfuscate the issues such as geographical land waste, abuse, misuse and economic disempowerment for those who don’t have access to the wealth of a so-called country, South Africa been a key example.

Rather, I would hope that the beauty of the surfaces and an awareness of the issues work in tandem: the dust of the earth, the black abyss of infinite depth, the acidic colouration, the emulsion, the terrific chemical bonding that defines mineral structures accentuated by the expressive form, line and colour – all such formal components should lead to respect for the land, a desire to use its wealth for the good and an awareness that should this be achieved, then both art and science are complicit in developing a new culture, an integrated culture and a sustainable future.

WHAT: COMPLICIT GEOGRAPHIES Paintings by Jeanette Unite
WHERE: Eclectica Contemporary, 179 Buitengracht St, Gardens, Cape Town, 8001
WHEN: Opening 17th January

This review by Dr Danny Shorkend first appeared in the Cape Times