Coffee Table Book:
Of Pigs and Performance
'Whatever angst permeates my work surfaces unselfconsciously. I simply make art according to my own perceptions at the time. As these change so does my work, regardless of prescription, political correctness or any conscious attempt to conform.' (1)
Norman Catherine was born in East London in September 1949. At the age of ten he was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and was confined to bed for months on end, over a number of years. Besides doing school lessons in bed, much of his time during this period was spent drawing and developing a vivid imagination.
'One of my favourite pastimes when I was not confined to bed was constructing enormous brightly coloured snakes out of stuffed sacking. I would hide in the hedge waiting for passing pedestrians and motorists and then reel in the snake from the other side of the road. The reaction was always quite dramatic. I still sometimes get a similar reaction to the work I do today.'
Catherine studied for his final high school years at the East London Technical College Art School from 1967 to 1968. Admittance to study Fine Art at the University of Witwatersrand was refused him due to this technical college education, and so he continued studying for a graphic design diploma at the East London college. Cecil Skotnes who, having seen some of the young artist's woodcuts, arranged an exhibition at the now defunct Herbert Evans Gallery in Johannesburg in 1969. Catherine left college to work for this exhibition, which was his first solo show. After a brief sojourn in Pretoria in 1970, he returned to East London where he first learnt the technique of silk-screening, having taken on a job as apprentice signwriter. In 1971 he moved to Johannesburg.
Already in the late 60s Catherine was experimenting with mixed media works -- oil paintings on wood and art assembled from railway sleepers, vinyl discs, driftwood, barbed wire and an assortment of found objects. These early works were the forerunners of his later mixed media assemblages. In 1972 after working as a commercial artist with the Grapple Group Design studio he began airbrush painting and practised art as a full-time career. During this time he exhibited at Gallery 101, The Lidchi Gallery and Gallery 21, followed by The Goodman Gallery in 1972 where he still exhibits today. (3)
Catherine's first Goodman Gallery solo exhibition took place in 1972. It featured primitivist mixed media mobiles and works on wood and canvas, peppered with bone and wire, as well as his first airbrush works. His second solo exhibition, also at The Goodman Gallery, in 1973, included surreal landscapes with strange phallic plants and dismembered body parts. In these works the inspiration of the Dadaists, surrealists René Magritte and Joan Miro, the naive paintings of Paul Klee, as well as the 70s work of American pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg are evident. (4) The influences exerted by his South African peers during this time were far less overt. This is partly due to the fact that with some notable exceptions, South African artists experimenting with more conceptually orientated installations were few and far between. (5)
It was at this second Goodman Gallery solo show that Catherine first exhibited customised fibreglass shop window mannequins, rendered in bright colours, and his legendary 'Tapticles' (taps with testicles). A toilet emitting dry ice, sporting a large nose on a pink fake fur lined seat cover and with a phallic exit duct was displayed on fake green grass. This toilet theme was repeated by Catherine on the 1973 Art South Africa Today exhibition where the toilet, adorned with white toilet paper rolls silk-screened with the words Net Blankes (Whites Only) on the individual sheets was installed in a corrugated iron sentry box.
It was also at the opening of this Goodman Gallery solo show in 1973 that Catherine had his second encounter with artist Walter Battiss -- then the undisputed monarch of the art kingdom -- and Head of Fine Art at Unisa (University of South Africa) in Pretoria. The two first met briefly on a street in Pretoria in 1970. Battiss was mostly interested in the shape of Catherine's toes and asked Catherine to do a drawing of them for him. At the time Catherine had been assisting in the printing of some of Battiss' woodcuts. In 1971 a mixed media work entitled Trap by Catherine was selected for the 'Art South Africa Today' biennial exhibition in Durban. Battiss was one of the judges and he subsequently arranged for the purchase of the work for the Unisa art collection. And when the two met again it was evidently a meeting of kindred spirits, for it led to one of South Africa's most fruitful creative collaborations of the 70s and early 80s: the development of Fook Island. (6)
'Walter liked the whimsical airbrush work I was doing at the time and invited me to do a stamp design for the imaginary island. The image was to be the shadow of Ferdinand Fook (his alter ego). '
The first Fook Happening in 1974 launched the Goodman-Wolman Gallery in Cape Town. It was a multi-sensory experience - a collaboration of culinary experimentation, entertainment and artworks of Catherine. Featured were strings of boerewors leading down the pavement and into the new gallery. Included in the Fookian fare were jelly-encased sausages and 'Moonlight Trout in Twilight Sauce' prepared by musician Ramsay Mackay. Unfortunately, as with the Tapticles, apartheid South Africa's notorious Special Branch interpreted the irreverent sausage symbolism as an act of subversion.
'The time in which these works were produced was one of heavy censorship. I didn't set out to make them overtly 'pornographic', but the authorities read them as that and tried to have works removed. I think they gave the boerewors a personal interpretation. Anyway some of the evidence was eaten before anything could be done.'
Linda Givon describes the food as Eat Art; 'It wasn't necessarily intended for eating; in fact the trout was full of shells and scales. But it was symptomatic of Fook. People just devoured everything'. April Fooks day was celebrated the following year at the Goodman Gallery in September with works of Catherine and Battiss.
But Catherine is at pains to separate the evolution of Fook Island from his own work.
'Of course there were overlaps, but it was Walter's concept and although I enjoyed participating, it was not the main thrust of my work.' After Battiss died in 1982, Catherine continued exploring aspects of the concept and held a final Fook Commemoration Exhibition in honour of Ferd III in 1986.
During the early 70s, installations, performances, or happenings were uncommon occurrences in South Africa, except among the most daring members of the cultural vanguard. (7) And visual critiques, even nose tweaking, of the South African political system were virtually taboo. While Catherine clearly revelled in the in-your-face irreverence of his processions, performances and mixed media installations, they were proclaimed more with a sense of exuberant rebelliousness than a self-conscious political sensibility.
His airbrush paintings executed during this time were initially less provocative. But even these works were permeated with a subversive edge. A sense of foreboding infiltrated the frivolity. Works inspired by the child-like paintings of Paul Klee and Joan Miro became increasingly peppered with hallucinatory imagery. Phallic symbolism, rendered with harsh realism, imbued them with a sense of the bizarre. In fact they harboured, beneath their didactic content and clinical seamless surfaces, a madness, which was to emerge more overtly in later works. In many respects these paintings -- like Catherine's early sculptures, performances and installations -- served as the prologue to the mixed media works that were to be produced during South Africa's various States of Emergency during the mid and late 80s. Already in these early paintings the process of deconstructing the fictions of political, cultural and racial identity had begun.