Red: The Iconography of colour in the work of Penny Siopis

23 June - 19 July 2009
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The South African artist Penny Siopis (b. 1953) has, consistently and with increasing allegorical agency, made the colour red central to her signature. Each new exploration returns to the application of red.

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Painting is a particularly powerful way of embodying the imagination, the unconscious, fantasy. As a carnal medium, it is violent, erotic and beautiful.

Penny Siopis (2005) in response to Sarah Nuttall in the interview “On Painting”, Art South Africa, 4:2, 36

Within the visible spectrum it is the colour red that – through ages and cultures, across geographies and histories, spanning time – has acquired the greatest number of associations. Taking its vacillating meanings from direct and specific human experience, red is sometimes the colour of passion, of guilt, of sin. At other times it may be the hue of anger, fire, violence, revolution. It can adopt the meaning of courage, sacrifice, martyrdom. Red is also the colour of warning. But above all, its most enduring link is to the colour of blood. Blood-red is the evidence of wounding and the experience of trauma. Eyes that are blood-shot are rimmed in red.

The South African artist Penny Siopis (b. 1953) has, consistently and with increasing allegorical agency, made the colour red central to her signature. Each new exploration (every successive body of work, regardless of its medium, approach, composition, language, concept, concern) returns to the application of red. Blackened carmine crimson, rusty ochre, deep purple, metallic oxides of iron and mercury, bright pink, red lead, hints of a barely-perceptible blush, brilliant vermillion, alizarin and brazilin, scarlet: used again and again not just as metaphor (for that would be too easy), but as a directly traceable reference to the world the artist inhabits.

Curated by Brenton Maart, the exhibition and catalogue of Red: The Iconography of Colour in the Work of Penny Siopis examines the artist’s use of this range of pigments over a period of 27 years. Using visceral and explosive key examples from important bodies of artwork, the project analyses the changing meaning of red in South Africa: evident is the base layer of sexual and grotesque excess from the early-1980s; above that is the layer of political revolution and fear in the late 1980s, above that is the layer of fear and xenophobia in the 1990s; above that, in her most recent work, are the colours of trauma and shame.

Through the depiction of the generic as the personal, through ambivalence, through an insistence on a shared history, Siopis makes the viewer part of the narrative of her work. The enactment of horror and shame – both political and personal – becomes a shared experience, one in which we are all complicit.

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