South African artist William Kentridge is difficult to describe. Technically, he creates drawings, sculpture, prints and collage. He also makes stop-action animated films in which whole segments are shot with a single sheet of paper — drawn in charcoal, erased and redrawn. His deft handling of shapes and lines form pictures of heroes in operas, and images of social and economic injustices that haunt his hometown of Johannesburg.
Group all these media and muses together into a retrospective of Kentridge's career, like William Kentridge: The World Is Process now on display at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and it's like drinking from a firehose.
Hanging in the main upstairs gallery, with touching sculptures by Gib Singleton and electric paintings by Earl Biss in neighboring galleries, The World Is Process ensures that Colorado's first Kentridge show is one to remember. The artist derails viewer expectations with each subtle, but engaging work. Once you think you've "got" it, the next piece turns your theory on its ear. Soon you're left with a jumble of ideas about the who, what and why of this art. Everything is beautiful, and while not disparate — Kentridge does maintain a signature scratchy line and elevated mood — differences of tone, style and attitude redirect any straightforward line of understanding.
"I think there are threads you can pull that tie an entire body of work, but over the course of the past couple of decades, his work has changed and he's addressed a number of different themes," says museum director and curator of American art Blake Milteer, who organized the exhibit. "Even in a show like this, where you have a whole gallery filled with an individual artist's work, sometimes it's hard to get an idea or an overall sense of what [he's] thinking about."
Visualizing the world
The FAC doesn't leave you upstream without a paddle. A gallery handout helps viewers wrap their heads around this slippery art, and a concentrated stable of works makes it easier to draw parallels, such as the one mentioned in the title.
"One of the really interesting things about Kentridge is this notion of 'process' for him, and that's what I really tried to draw out, no pun intended, for the show," says Milteer. "For Kentridge, I think he finds overlapping meanings and processes between the ways that we interact in the world, in terms of our psychological interaction in the world, in terms of our political interaction in the world and our visual interaction in the world."
Milteer's focus on process, and the theme of progression, is unmistakable. For instance, in most of Kentridge's video works, he doesn't fully erase a character's movements from previous shots, leaving a ghostly trail mapping movement. For reference, Milteer places a segment's final drawing on display near where the video is screened.
Other works in the exhibition speak to Kentridge's interest in the make-believe workings of an abstract world. Mechanisms of all types appear throughout the show. His "Learning the Flute" film meditates for a long time on a system of wheels and cogs that spin and turn.
More fundamentally, "Anamorphic Drawing (Woman With a Rock)" illustrates his curiosity with such natural mechanisms as optics. This flat, circular drawing pegged in the center with a tall, shiny canister appears to be some kind of sculpture. But when you observe the drawing reflected on the curved surface of the canister, you see an image of a woman heaving a rock in a desolate landscape.
There are three such "antiquated visualization tools," as Milteer calls them, in the show, echoing Kentridge's work in film and the history of documenting movement. (Think early animation devices, such as a stereoscope.)
Air of history
It's this old-fashioned technology and sensibility — especially evident in drawings and a film inspired by The Magic Flute — that endow his oeuvre with an air of history. You might think Kentridge was of a previous century, when in fact he is actively working today. He's only 55 years old, in fact, and remains deeply engaged in observing Johannesburg battling through post-Apartheid social unrest.
He depicts this in his videos, which are vague in narrative but packed with powerful imagery. In "Stereoscope," bright blue water — one of the rare pieces in which Kentridge strays from blacks, whites and grays — spills from the pockets of a man in a suit, rapidly filling the room in which he stands staring at the floor.
It's so striking you nearly forget other works you've just viewed, and you're back to square one in terms of grasping what Kentridge is about.
Milteer understands. He cites one of his favorite reactions from viewers he's spoken to in the gallery: One man confessed he hadn't heard of Kentridge, didn't know what to expect of the work, and felt a little overwhelmed. "[He said] that as soon as he began to understand a particular image, when he moved on to the next image or when the scene in the film changed, he quickly realized, he didn't."
What Milteer finds most important, though, is that the man enjoyed this. Kentridge's ability to remain unpredictable without being erratic is new to most of us. And while confusion doesn't usually engender pleasure, Kentridge proves he's the exception to most every rule.