Coffee Table Book:
Art of Darkness / Ad Liberty
But operating in a society in an ever-tightening grip inevitably took its toll on the most creatively liberated of spirits. In 1984 Catherine and Janet left South Africa for America, where they lived and worked in Los Angeles and New York for a year. Catherine does not regard this sojourn as a period of exile. He remembers it as an opportunity to experience greater artistic liberation. During this time in America his work reflected the vibrant, frenzied extremes of Manhattan. With renewed energy he evoked a Felliniesque sense of angst and amusement. In paintings such as Downtown Express (1984) and Struck By Lightning (1985) his fragmented forms performed on a nocturnal stage deep in the heart of an urban purgatory. Flamboyant, grotesque, psychotic and sexual, his imagery seemed to reflect a desire to voraciously feed off the city's subcultures, immersing himself in its liberties and licentiousness.
'From a distance, I could engage with Africa, through a better perspective of both my roots and routes. I fed off the frenzy, gangster culture and the sordidness of daily life of New York more than I did the art. Artists such as Jean Michel Basquiat interested me with his combination of primitive and contemporary imagery. Keith Haring's graffiti and merchandising reminded me of some of Battiss's work. And Kenny Scharf's comic-book style encapsulated America for me.'
In America Catherine also re-incorporated found objects into his work with a greater variety and freedom. He produced mixed media montages of urban and primitive imagery. He also combined drawings and paintings on paper, wood, squashed tin cans, metal and canvas. But a sense of alienation infiltrated his exuberant response to the vibrant anarchy of street life.
Simultaneously, he began to articulate increasingly intense encounters with the demons residing in the unconscious. This is conveyed with aching clarity in works such as National Suicide, in which an powerboat/coffin, navigated by a headless man spirals out of control into the abyss. The kaleidoscopic Animal Instincts (1985) features a multicultural mix of urban and primitive motifs. But the pageantry doesn't quite conceal the cauldron of violence and confusion simmering beneath.
Soon after these works were produced, Catherine returned home to prepare for a solo exhibition at Area X Gallery in the East Village, New York to be held during 1986. It was during this time that his macabre marionettes first emerged. Together with the mixed media assemblages produced for the exhibition, these works satirised the hypocrisy and absurdity behind lofty titles. Simultaneously they confronted the sickly state of the South African nation - the institutionalised lunacy on which the apartheid state's power was rooted.
The specialised method in the madness of apartheid was that it defined the normal through the abnormal. It also sanctified brutality through statutes promulgated on puny rationalisations of racism. How could its legacy not be a chronically sick society, as indicated through works like Intensive Care? Here, the references are not only to Catherine's accident-prone childhood, but to institutionalised illness. The tiny mixed media sculpture features a tin can flattened into a misshapen human replica which has been virtually entombed in a hospital/jail bed.
A seminal work produced during this calamitous era was State of Emergency. Produced in 1985, it consists of a rough edged, crudely-hewn collage of x-rayed, vaulting black cats containing white body remnants. It is reminiscent, in terms of its apocalyptic sensibility, of Picasso's Guernica, produced during the Spanish Civil War. Through a combination of coded and literal imagery, State of Emergency presents a tableau of political and psychic disaster, without identifying anyone in particular. There is, however, clear identification in Boss (1985). Rendered in the form of a voodoo mask, the Boss wears the peaked cap of the military dictator. Cigarette clenched between serrated teeth, he is literally smoking up a storm. Despite the ritualistic facial markings, the image is not intended to be culturally specific. Rather, it provides caustic commentary on the corrupt rites performed with impunity by those in power and the tornado -- a recurring motif throughout Catherine's work -- wafting from the Boss's cigarette is unmistakably an ill wind.
Reminiscent of the Orwellian Big Brother, the Boss oversees a trinity of puppet-politicians. In the centre is a 'president'. He is flanked by a minister brandishing a resolution and a bureaucrat with snake hands donning the cap of a court jester. Boss forms part of a sardonic repertoire of wire and metal sculptures, in which the comical elements serve only partially to mediate the absolute contempt Catherine feels towards political powermongers.