Coffee Table Book:

Role Call

Tinker, tailor, soldier ... shaman... witch man, poor man, beggar man thief.... Call it, if you like, a variation on an ancient theme. There are elements in Catherine's most recent work that remind one of that ancient nursery rhyme that embodies the careers and hierarchies of social classification. Except that in the case of Catherine, his work challenges conventional categorisation, interrogates traditional hierarchies of identity and status, ultimately subverting them. He experiments with inverted alchemy. He extracts profane substance from seemingly sacred surfaces. The gilt edges are removed from precious metals and rendered as base materials. In his work a commoner is as good as a king, the emperor truly naked without his clothes. And sacred cows are booted off their puny pedestals into the muck where they consort with pigs.

For Catherine, the lines between art and craft, icon and curio constantly blur. His fetishistic forms inhabit not the innocence of Fook Island but the deviance of Fourth World. This is Catherine's imaginary island, created as a haven for crooks commoners and the rest of imperfect humanity. First conceived in the early 80s it was created partly as a comical riposte to Battiss' Fook Island. Fook Island was utopian and innocent. Fourth World, by contrast, was a sanctuary for the people who didn't fit into that perfect world.

One can form analogies between Fook, Fourth World and the imaginary worlds inhabited by JR Tolkien's creatures in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Like Tolkien, Battiss and Catherine both responded in part to a growing sense of social calamity by taking refuge in the imagination. (1) Fook represented a place of paradisal order and freedom. On the mythical island there existed -- as in Tolkien's world -- a clear distinction between good and evil. But in Catherine's Fourth World, the distinctions are blurred. Fourth World was a mixture of first and third worlds. It was a place with its own mythology and mindset, where magic and mundaneness converged. And it is from this self-created world that Catherine's menagerie of beasts emerged after 1990, in his paintings, relief works, figurines and - most recently - larger than life-size sculptures..

In a sense, his post 1994 output signifies a recapitulation of earlier refrains; the ongoing preoccupation with death and the occult; a fixation with the object as fetish; a curiosity towards other cultures and their curios. But there is a systematic reworking of themes, as opposed to simple repetition. Over the years Catherine's creatures have become the embodiment of his creative mythology. For him the process has been less about defining his work as art, than giving creative expression to observations, experiences, fears and desires.

I don't particularly care whether my work is perceived to be either an artform or a curio. In my house, curios have the same value as art and the distinction between the two is academic. My work emerges from instinctive observations. As soon as I've made them I move onto something else.

Catherine's idiosyncratic yet trend-setting creative choices are borne out by Linda Givon, of the Goodman Gallery:
'In many respects Norman has been ahead of his time. His sculptures and performances in the 70s were unprecedented in South Africa. He was using discarded litter and producing tin can paintings in the 80s, long before they became a trendy medium. And today, look around. We are living unequivocally in the era of the tin can.' (2)

But Givon detects a powerful shift in his post-apartheid products.
'Norman's work in general during the 80s was filled with the drama, agony and torture of that era. Yet in the 90s, there appears to be a liberation from the trauma of the past, a detoxification if you like. It is as though he is saying that it's okay to be part of the culture and society he lives in.

Perhaps this explains, in part, Catherine's fascination with the 'curious' side of life. For him the curio evokes the feeling of Africa. The continent has become a stew of ritualistic, colonial and contemporary mementoes. Eclectic influences - both traditional African and western Christian permeate its artefacts. In the ominously titled Dirty Tricks (1995) the sign used to indicate poison is surrounded by a halo of ghoulish imagery and symbols of both a Christian and occult origin. The title refers to the shadowy Third Forces intent on destabilising the new South Africa prior to, and after, the 1994 elections.

Six years after Dirty Tricks was produced, media reports of biochemical experiments conducted by Dr Wouter Basson --apartheid's evil scientist -- amplify the retrospective resonance of this work. Familiar artefacts, such as hammers and knives, also punctuate this work. But their effect is more decorative than malevolent. Recent relief works such as Muti Man (1996), Beware of the Man (1997) and Who Do Voodoo (1996), display an assortment of Catherine's trademarks combined with African curiosities. Clocks set at the witching hour, voodoo masks, fetishes with penis-tails and other phallic objects seem to spill from the frames. They reflect his ongoing fixation with other worlds -- both material and spiritual -- with the magical and macabre side of life. But through Catherine's idiosyncratic representations, death becomes demystified. His spirits might be under the influence of some macabre spell. But ultimately they read principally as fetishes of fun.

Through these figurines, I try to capture as many characteristics, personae and pathologies in a never ending story. They allow me the freedom to be as flippant and as self-indulgent as I choose, to explore my fascination with the object as fetish and break the taboos behind different cultural superstitions.

Such is the case with Hocus Pocus (1998) and Taboo or Not Taboo (1999) --two relief carvings comprising shelves saturated with an assortment of bizarre anthropomorphic miniatures.

Much of art is about hocus pocus, an invention, a bit of magic, even madness. Yet within the madness there must be some sense, perhaps a way of people being able to recognise something of themselves in my work. Taboos are constructed to contain behaviour within socially accepted parameters. I enjoy breaking those boundaries.

Indeed the glue that once bound and separated cultures and belief systems has become unstuck. All the world is a cultural supermarket. - a one-stop shopping experience for artists who simply pluck items off the shelves, utilize and discard them at will. Givon commented on this global trend after a visit to the annual Documenta show in 1999:
'It is as though Africa has emerged from the shadows at night, infiltrating the once hallowed environment of the visual arts. The artworld has become a huge curio store.'

Catherine's post 1990 imagery also reflect the ongoing paradox of his output. The impression created from these works is of an artist who displays an uncanny knack for prophesy while working in relative isolation. To a certain extent this is accurate. But this impression also presupposes the romantic concept of the artist as the alienated lone-ranger, determinedly swimming against fashionable currents. A glance at Catherine's creative chronology instantly dispels this notion. (3) Indeed, prior to 1994, Catherine has been an active participant in local and international exhibitions that marked South Africa's transition from cultural outcast to, prodigal child and finally fully-fledged member of the global art mart. In 1992 for example, he contributed works to Art from South Africa -- a touring exhibition which formed part of the Zabalazza Festival at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. In 1993 and 1994 he participated in the Venice and Cuban Biennales, respectively. And from 1995 onwards, he was included in a variety of internationally curated shows whose identities were not predicated on the befores and afters of apartheid. Concurrently, he held regular solo exhibitions in Southern Africa, while dabbling in diverse popular media. In the last decade, the broadening of his artistic base has contributed to the loosening up of his idiosyncratic imagery, enhancing the flexibility of his artistic signature.

Yet Catherine's departure from the stark, iconic quality of his 80s work to the more whimsical curios of the mid 90s, does not sit comfortably with everyone. Some critics interpret this shift as a trivialisation, as opposed to liberation, of his previous concerns. Others respond ambiguously to both the tone and iconography of Catherine's post-apartheid works. At his 1994 solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, South Africa art critic Ivor Powell commented:
What is interesting about Catherine's more recent work and what lifts it above the merely post-facto surrealist, is the particular mood and foreboding that, largely through his use of colour and the particular quality of the mask-like face, he reads into his subject. There is something dark and fearful and flayed about the way he had rendered up the stock image, a different and darker order of expression or revelation that is coming through in the play of imagination.

But not all the works have this stark and powerfully iconic quality. In many of them the interactions of imagery are looser and more playful, with the canvas becoming an analogue for the unfettered activity of the artist's consciousness... Catherine's works are impossible to pin down. Sure there is a kind of foreboding and a harsh and brutal vision that pervades and informs the work, there is a mixing up of details and styles that creates its own emblematic reality, there are lots of games being played that attest at least to the artist's skill.(4)

Ashraf Jamal has observed:
'Of his more recent works, Catherine says: "There must be some positiveness. Even if there is a dark side underlying the work, maybe its prettified a little, trying to look for some beauty within that horror, or disguising it. A work must have its own life and magic no matter what it means. A certain aura. A personality which is my personality."'(5)

Therefore, if the mixed media pieces of the 80s were about Angstland, Catherine's more recent output might be described in general as light-hearted Rocky Horror shows. The trauma ward and the carnival share equal space with curio stores saturated with crass and absurdly comical trinkets. Take Fanagalo Store (1995) and Ju Ju Bazaar (1996), for example. In these craft-art installations Catherine has used a pastiche of characters and curiosities recurring throughout his work like a haphazard cast of extras.

These works vaguely resemble 3-D versions of the hieroglyphic narratives and images unearthed from the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. Stylised, linear, almost archaic, these works also display anatomical motifs - such as eyes rendered full-frontal -- which are reminiscent of those produced by this ancient civilisation. But these painted reliefs simultaneously evoke less epic associations. They resemble the cluttered shelves of a South African spaza shop. Sprouting throughout South Africa's townships, these informal community stores stock everything from staple foods to pharmaceutical products, serving as the principal locus of exchange for the country's still-disadvantaged communities. The term Fanagalo is a hybrid of Zulu and English spoken on white-owned farms and mines so that white bosses could communicate with black migrant workers. This 'new' language symbolised the subjugation of the black majority who were treated as foreigners in their own country. But within a post-apartheid context and under the command of Catherine's caustic wit, fanagalo has been decontextualised and demystified. It has been reduced to a scrambled argot whose code has shifted in meaning. The Fanagalo store and the spaza shop have become metaphors for a society identified not in terms of race but in consumerism.

But in order to be demystified and deconstructed, the object must have been imbued with prior mystique. This is where Catherine's creative mythology surfaces most powerfully. Creative mythology works in many ways in opposition to political or theological mythology. It does not attempt to coerce a sense of order. Rather, the most critical function a creative mythology is to foster the unfolding of the individual, in accord with himself, his culture and the universe.(6) But most importantly, perhaps, creative mythology assists in uncovering that awesome, ultimate, mystery which is both within and beyond the individual. It springs forth not from the dictates of authority but from the insights, sentiments, thoughts, fears and visions of an individual loyal to his own experience. It serves, in Shakespearean terms, as the mirror 'to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.'(7) Individual experience -- whether of horror or beauty -- is communicated through signs and symbols. By renewing and reworking these experiences, creative mythology restores to existence the quality of adventure. Its role is at once to both shatter and re-integrate. It therefore serves as a tool of exorcism, catharsis and ultimately demystification.

In many respects this process echoes the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin --the malevolent child-stealing dwarf who wreaked havoc on people's lives because they were unable to put a name to his form. Once they had correctly identified him as Rumpelstiltskin (a metaphor for the unconscious) his power was deactivated. By renewing and reworking his creatures of the unconscious -- in all their contradictory manifestations -- Catherine has succeeded in giving his beasts a name. To a certain extent their power has been nullified.

As his recent output indicates, the mutations in Catherine's creatures do not exist solely in content, but in the forms and scale they assume. The smaller, fetishist curio-art-objects give way to larger than life-size sculptures. Oy Vei, Exorcist, Eye To Eye and City Deep (1996) are gargantuan enlargements of the anthropomorphic (or animalistic, depending on angle of vision) characters appearing in earlier works. In a sense, the order of their appearance has been reversed: one almost expects them to have made their debut at the beginning of Catherine's career, like a cast of actors introduced to the audience before the pageant begins and the plot gets underway.

The life-size sculptures have broken free from the canvas and the confines of the relief backdrop asserting themselves in a free-standing space, and dwarfing the artist himself. But their exaggerated scale acquires an added surrealness through the absurd masks they wear and their distorted body parts and gestures. In Oy Vei, Exorcist, Eye to Eye and City Deep the demons of Catherine's dreams have been given the kiss, not of life exactly , but lightness, space and freedom. The ventriloquist and his dummy -- symbols of the divided consciousness -- and the exorcist seem to have undergone an exorcism for the artist. The open zipper that cleaves the torso of City Deep, evokes a sense of urban dichotomy. But the messy viscera of its urban underbelly remain intact. Catherine's Oy Vei -- a parody on the Yiddish expression of anxiety -- is a cartooned expression of angst. Despite their imposing size, these demons are not the scary monsters of the past. They exist alongside the artist, sometimes infiltrating his space, but no longer threatening his psyche.

And the added lure of Catherine's logic in these works lies in his ability to invert and subvert the conventional order, to articulate the fact that things are never quite as they seem. Which is what he does with Inside Trader (1997), a gigantic mixed media work depicting a corporate 'animal' in collar and tie. His facial features have been rendered upside down. He is trapped in a giant, gilt bird-cage. He embodies the Yuppie nightmare, the spectre of selling one's soul for stocks and bonds, and into bondage.

Yet moral judgement is almost entirely absent from his vision. This much is evident in his most recent output -- overtly millennial terminator-type sculptures. They consist of computerised, voice-activated giant sculptures replete with metallic visors and gangster-like visages. They symbolise a secular future ruled by the gods of technology. Yet In these works, Catherine's vision remains as primal as it is futuristic. 'Very little has changed in the last 100 years,' he says, 'despite the shifting appearance of things. Notions of good and bad still depend on whose side you are on.'

Scary monsters they might appear. Yet they combine apocalyptic associations with trademark comic touches. A composite of the fearsome Golem and robot-cop, they wear the raccoon mask of the crooks populating his political landscapes of the 80s and urban netherworlds of the early 90s. They conjure up images of faceless, high tech security patrols. Yet they also remind us of a robotic rave culture in the throes of a millennial madness that is as amoral as it is mechanistic. Installing an electronic memory chip with an infra red detector that responds to movement, Catherine is able to activate his monsters. The babble emanating from these primal-futuristic forms is unintelligible. Yet it is highly evocative -- distorted trance music, blocked drains, primal gurgles and croaking frogs. A semiotic reading of this work suggests that language has become an impotent tool of communication, subsumed by a universal gobbledygook that is as seductive as it is unsettling.

Thirty years after he began his career Catherine remains the shaman, intent on depicting the horrible in the thing itself. He still slips stealthily into altered states of consciousness, through manipulation of irrational spaces, time warps and extremes of scale. In his work transformation takes place not from a lower to a higher order, but rather to an 'other' one. He is the serial reinventor of the self. He remains the trickster, the juggler and the joker in the pack. And his embrace of hearts of darkness through the art of dark humour continues to infuse the apparent madness in his work with method, logic and light.