02.08 – 13.09.2017

An exhibition of recent paintings by Zarah Cassim

For her second solo exhibition Guise of Reality, Zarah Cassim has been reading Dostoevky’s 1864 novella Notes from Underground. This Russian set 1800s rambling memoir of a fictional narrator is a thinly veiled attack on Western Philosophy and proposes an alternative consciousness constituted by the anti-hero archetype. It is essentially a modern dystopian text heralding an “existential attitude” – disorientation in the face of a confusing and meaningless world. [1]

It is perhaps curious that a young, contemporary South African painter is reading such a text into the fabric of her paintings, but the act reflects a gesture related to more recent ideas about post-postmodernism, what American author David Foster Wallace (1993) has popularised as “new sincerity.” In line with Dostoevky’s criticism of nihilist in 1860s Russia, “new sincerity” challenges the cynical postmodern view, characterised by irony. [2]

Cassim’s interest in all of this relates to two distinct notions that Dostoevky’s text and Wallace’s critique describe: rebellion and disorientation. Counter to nihilist despair, Cassim sees this rebellion and disorientation as a process of unveiling. She uses the metaphorical forms of natural landscape as the subject for her investigative painting process that is centred on notions of perception. She seeks to evoke a space of sensitivity and reflection for the viewer in her works: the longing of a place just beyond reach or the mute encounter with a blurred horizon. The traditionally held cultural belief in nature and landscape as ‘truth’ (the real or untouched) is relied upon here. She appropriates allusions to the natural as ‘free,’ knowing that the true dynamic of the relationship between human and nature is more complexly related to issues of power, wealth, security and identity. In the tension between these two visions she exposes how reality is constructed through a veil of illusions:

The dynamic of the relationship between human and nature is a space where the illusion we perceive as reality is exposed. [3]

Like Dostoevsky’s use of a fictional narrator, Cassim uses her painting surface to explore an alternative consciousness, rooted in disorientation and fashioned in a rebellion against solely representational marks upon canvas, against inherited modes of constructing order, against the security of seeing: in short, in rebellion with the guise of reality itself.

The artifice of painted spaces is made evident in her dissolving treatment of the medium. Oil paint is applied, sponged away, wiped and diluted with solvent such that the forms she attempts to describe become ever more dreamlike and inaccessible. Layer by layer she peels away the play of illusion to quarry the question of reality itself. Her colour palette is moody, dominated by mysterious dark, inky blues and magenta. Hers is not a utopian project but a darkly imagined space where moments of lightness and darkness hold sway.

Cassim’s interest in the human relationship to nature is grounded in the perceptual practice of painting itself. Her natural landscapes are abstracted to the point that one perceives only what one wishes to see, thus identifying the perceptual play of real and imagined. Cassim’s titling of works also points to this perceptual quandary, being at times ambiguous: Amount of Something, Floating Points and other times specific, yet abstract: Dusk, In the Water, Shadows.

Our postmodernist discourses have successfully exposed how the acts of ordering that we do engender – the genealogical categorisation of plants or the colour coding of our books – these things are only illusions of order and stability, futile gestures that appease us momentarily in the face of a constantly shifting world. Cassim, in line with the contemporary turn, is a sincere analyst of the shifting surface – the place where as an artist she can engage the illusionary nature of perception in order to challenge philosophical notions about reality.

Text: Shifting Surface by Natasha Norman

[1] For further reading see Kaufmann, Walter (1956). Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian Books. [2] For a pithy look at this cultural idea see Fitzgerald, Jonathan D. (November 20, 2012). “Sincerity, Not Irony, Is Our Age’s Ethos.” The Atlantic. Retrieved 27.07.17 available here





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