Lost in Known Territory
In this new body of work by Cape Town artist Chris Denovan, the artist combines fragments of images from various sources which have been collected & catalogued over a number of years. Collaging contemporary signifiers and well-known historical paintings, Denovan subverts classical motifs in a series of large- and small-scale paintings which complicate notions of subject and identity.
The figures portrayed, whether human, object or animal, seem almost recognisable – in a nod to artists from Botticelli and Géricault to Matisse and Warhol. A number of the figures appear to be composed of different genders and races. This pastiching, the mixing of forms and references, is an unavoidable part of contemporary life. The bold colours and cheerful defiance of the subjects’ poses is a celebration of and reflection on the multiplicity of identity.
Denovan plays on the sense of recognition that comes from constantly being surrounded by images by referring to specific canonical paintings. His take on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1480s), for example, is a destabilisation of the classical nude – here she is excessively and eclectically clothed. Though she dons an historical characterisation in an attempt to find validation in a certain accepted mode of being, she doesn’t quite succeed. The result is a fresh take on a way of existing in the world. Success in this instance is unimportant.
In a similar act of subversion, the classical horseman present in many historical works, such as David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1805), is referenced in Napoleon after the Party. Here the recognisable and famed figure is replaced with a ghostly character in strange dress. The scene also takes place in a curiously modern setting, with the stage equipment and lights reminiscent of an outdoor concert stage. The figure is not a conqueror but, perhaps, an over-partied festival goer.
The joyful figures in Matisse’s Dance (1910) are replaced with stiff totem poles in Denovan’s Still Dance, linked to each other through lines that look like wires rather than more organic human touch, alluding to the peculiar features of the dis/connection of the digital age.
Théodore Géricault’s controversial painting The Raft of Medusa (1819), is referenced in The Raft of Endless Exploration. Here, anguished victims of a shipwreck are replaced with subjects that show variable degrees of defiance, while on their metaphorical journey to seek some validation of their identities: conquering new external and internal worlds. In Horizon St Sebastian, a classic male figure study is broken up and physically turned on its side, complicating its monolithic individuality.
The smaller works in the exhibition serve as snapshots of selected visual themes which emerge from Denovan’s vast collected sources. Painted on old studio palettes (which lend their own sense of art history as well as accidental colours and shapes), they complement the figures of the larger paintings by showcasing the range and complexity of references which have been cut-up and rearranged into new, carefully constructed subjects. This underscores the sense of possibility of our age, where we can emulate but don’t have to be the same.
Denovan is challenging his viewers to get lost on a journey of self un-discovery.