Coffee Table Book:
History and horror, crime and conflict, sci-fi and sexual transgression. Thus begins the attempt to define the art of Norman Catherine. The lexicon broadens: comic, violent, whimsical, playful, sly, satirical, brutish, anxious, at times even idealistic. And so it continues: vivid, brilliant, psychologically disconcerting, emotionally unforgiving, visually unforgettable. Yet the words themselves provide an incomplete collage of the thematic variations that have preoccupied Catherine's creative life.
But let us begin with Fook Manor.(1) Norman Catherine began making art at least seven years before the conception and formal christening of Fook Manor in 1975 - the home he still shares with his wife Janet Walker. A primitive-futuristic fantasia of steel glass and wood, Fook Manor serves as the creative fulcrum of his art. It also encapsulates the contradictions and changes that pervade South Africa's past and present, as well as those residing in the artist's psyche.
It is located in the rustic haven of Hartbeespoort, just outside Pretoria and about 60km from Johannesburg. Nearby Pelindaba (2) was the site for nuclear experimentation by Armscor - the arms company sponsored by the apartheid government to secure South Africa's military might. And by the mid 80s the neighbouring town of Brits served as one of the headquarters of the Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging (3)- a right wing political organisation intent on preserving white and Afrikaans hegemony.
Today demographic shifts have taken place. But parts of Hartbeespoort still seem to operate according to rules that have little to do with the rest of the radical transformations overtaking South Africa's socio-political landscape. In fact, for some, reality still extends no further than the towering Magaliesburg mountains and the Hartbeespoort Dam. Set apart from, yet still nominally a part of, the urban metropolis, it therefore serves as the ideal recovery unit from the stress fractures of the city. Because of its tranquil postcard setting and relative isolation the kind of art you'd expect to emerge from surroundings of such pastoral splendour would be that of lush landscapes, lavish still lifes, wildlife and moments from scenes of rustic domestic bliss.
But Catherine has always operated in his own idiosyncratic space. His art is distinctly, defiantly, dystopian in vision. His landscapes are surrealistic sites of struggle between a bizarre bestiary of creatures. Contorted forms rendered crudely in brash, cartoon hues cavort in irrational spaces. They resemble mutant products of an experiment gone comically awry. The response to Catherine's work is not sanguine, but rather one of unmitigated shock. But the shudder is soon followed by a smile. Catherine's sensibility is as whimsical as it is sardonic -- as light as it is dark.
It is within the moral desolation of a jagged socio-political landscape, lodged between the bookends of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, that Catherine's art is most frequently located. In many respects, he epitomises the ultimate cynic. He eyeballs South Africa's heart of darkness with unblinking alienation. He conveys his vision through contorted forms performing macabre rites or dances of dandified revelry against the backdrop of a dissipating empire. Yet just at the point where he galvanises his viewers' sense of outrage so too does he assuage it through laughter. Like the puppeteer or the ventriloquist, he mediates the message through his marionettes.
Catherine's vision is divided into multiple, reflective components. His prodigious oeuvre is pervaded by a revulsion of hypocrisy and sanctimonious political posturing. But his imagery also straddles the internal worlds of wonder and nightmare, swerving between literal commentary and less palpable hallucinatory realms. His syncopated pas de deux with dualities evokes a madness that is as much of the mind as it is of the material world. Throughout, his work embraces the anarchy that sizzles beneath the seamless appearance of structures and systems.
Yet Catherine's edge is as cushioning as it is cutting. The sharpness of his socio-political polemic is often blunted deliberately by the visual seductiveness of his imagery. Unlike many of his contemporaries who earnestly attempt to re-invent the language of art, Catherine unashamedly operates within its traditional figurative parameters. This renders his imagery more intelligible and his concerns more accessible to the general public.
'Today visual attractiveness in art, and populist imagery, is regarded pretty much as a no-no, I don't reject this trend but I refuse to conform to it simply because it is fashionable. I prefer to focus on inventing my own way of doing things, whether it is visually seductive or not, rather than emulate someone else's way of making art. I suppose I work pretty much in isolation, even though most people feel the need to be part of a group.' (4)
And herein lies, perhaps, yet another paradox to an artist who embraces contradiction as his principal muse. In many respects Catherine is an anomaly. His output, spanning 30 years, straddles the most formative periods in South African contemporary art, from the 70s through to end of the millennium. Yet he works pretty much in isolation, in a conceptual space all of his own. And as will be explored in this book, Catherine's art is not merely idiosyncratic. Catherine is ahead of his time both in terms of his use of materials and in terms of his insight into the pathologies, psyches and psychoses of his subject matter.
Catherine is averse to the intricacies of self-introspection and dismissive of trendy art argot. Simultaneously, however, he admits to being a sucker for anything that seeps into his consciousness from a labyrinth of cultural nooks and crannies. He has fed off the literary fantasies of C S Lewis and J R Tolkien. (5) Yet his creative nutrients also include the urban underworld, politics and corruption, technology, contemporary music and movies - in fact anything innovative from the world of mass culture. These influences occupy the same shelf of significance alongside loftier cultural luminaries, excavated from the archives of art history or flashing from the pages of contemporary art journals.
In a way, he's the ultimate democrat - embracing a plethora of conceptual and visual stimuli in much the same way that he gathers his motley assortment of materials - tin cans, railway sleepers and barbed wire. In the early 70s he was producing sculptures from found objects and holding art performances that were regarded as pretty radical, even subversive, during this era. Although his work executed during the 80s has been interpreted principally in terms of its political resonance, other works produced concurrently appear to be located in more private realms, making them more conducive to a psychoanalytical reading. Because he is adept in a multitude of media, he classifies himself as neither a painter nor a sculptor. And throughout his oeuvre one medium has influenced another. For example, his pristine airbrush works of the 70s paradoxically planted the seeds of his crude, confrontational mixed media assemblages of the 80s. Yet simultaneously he was producing more contemplative etchings. And the animated paintings of early 90s with their wacky menagerie of anthropomorphic creatures began, as the decade progressed, to assume a life and identity of their own. Initially carved in relief, they suddenly broke entirely free of their surroundings, serving as fetish figurines, curios and more recently, larger-than-life characters.
The richness of Catherine's imagery lies in its multiple angles and jagged edges, its shingles and its antidotes. It is therefore fruitless attempting to impose a sense of uniformity on to an artist who obviously revels in fragmentation. It is because of this, that this book is made up of a series of installments - each taking a different view - rather than a cohesive analytical biography.
It would also not serve Catherine to oversimplify his artistic evolution as a linear progression up the stepladder of progress. In reality, the shifts in his work are more akin to a series of interlocking circles. This is not to say that his artistry has not mellowed and matured. But in certain respects his creative evolution can be compared to the structure of a musical score, with overtures, allegros, adagios, crescendos, consolidations and recapitulations of central themes. And if there are principal refrains recurring through Catherine's work they include his ironic combination of the primitive and the futuristic, the totemic and the fleeting, darkness and light.
Catherine mobilises and allegorises horror and hypocrisy through an arsenal accumulated from ordinary, iconic, archetypal, child-like and mythical sources. Subtle gradations from light to dark are not for him. He adopts the sledgehammer approach to colour - lurid, saturated swathes rendered with a clarity of a cartoon, garish neon strokes on the crude flotsam of everyday life. His forms are built up from a network of associations. The entry points at first seem accessible. But surface simplicity only partially camouflages his acerbic insights into the pathology of power. Profundity is not determined by solemnity. And like his imagery, Catherine himself hip-hops simultaneously between mirth and angst, irony and outrage.
In short, Catherine is an artist who defies neat description in terms of iconography and medium. If easy classifications are required, then call him an artist driven by a defiance towards preconception, dogma and rigid definition. He is simultaneously Velcro and Teflon. Influences attach themselves to his work like dust particles. Yet he also shakes them off with equal ease, leaving the viewer with the raw visceral impact of his imagery, striking in a place where a laugh and a gasp are indistinguishable.