Bitterkomix

Could John Lydon still be Johnny Rotten 20 years on? Or would the comfortable paunch and the receding (or receded) hairline – leave aside the absence of a bass player – ineluctably condemn the Sex Pistols to absurdity, bathos, irrelevance? Some species of art or cultural intervention or whatever you want to call it, come from a place that can only really be justified with reference to a brash and callow youthfulness. Their strong motive centre lies in the poetics of “fuck you!” Salutary such species of art certainly can be, and authentic, and eloquent in context. Out of the context or relation in which they came into being, however, they have little to commend them; what was once powerful commentary becomes flabby and embarrassing posturing.

Could John Lydon still be Johnny Rotten 20 years on? Or would the comfortable paunch and the receding (or receded) hairline – leave aside the absence of a bass player – ineluctably condemn the Sex Pistols to absurdity, bathos, irrelevance? Some species of art or cultural intervention or whatever you want to call it, come from a place that can only really be justified with reference to a brash and callow youthfulness. Their strong motive centre lies in the poetics of “fuck you!” Salutary such species of art certainly can be, and authentic, and eloquent in context. Out of the context or relation in which they came into being, however, they have little to commend them; what was once powerful commentary becomes flabby and embarrassing posturing.The question that arises on the occasion of the Bitterkomix retrospective at the Michael Stevenson gallery is this: Does Bitterkomix, the underground comic collective (really the collaboration of two graphic artists, Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes, with occasional inputs from their friends and relations) fall into this category? Or have the artists succeeded in making the transition from graphic punk to something more enduring in the nearly 15 years since they started up in the confines of Stellenbosch University, in 1992 – at the tail end of the apartheid era, two years before the first democratic elections, at a time when every cultural nerve end in South African society was hanging out like intestines in a horror road accident?Put differently, has the visceral shock, which was then their stock in trade as artists, metamorphosed in the intervening period into something more semantically complex and enduring?It might of course also be asked whether one really need ask such hard questions in the first place. Is it not enough to think about the whole Bitterkomix thing as a nostalgic indulgence, and allow Kannemeyer the semantic meanderings of his paintings on glass, Botes his curious forays into a latter-day Surrealism, saucing the experience with a memory of just how anarchic and confrontational they once were? The audience at the opening of the exhibition certainly thought that was enough, and one could not help noticing something all too unusual about the general viewing experience: the punters were genuinely enjoying it. More than this they were unabashedly cackling and chortling as they craned into diagonal postures to follow the narrative of the classic Bitterkomix strips to their usually disgusting and taboo-trashing final frame.This can only be good in an art world. Having said this, it also needs to be noted that a lot of the affect in the Bitterkomix strips and assorted other graphic imagery (as displayed on the gallery) does not 15 years later come as a kick in the gut, but rather as a kind of shared joke at the expense of the sensibilities of an imagined other. The point is that the puritan hypocrisies of Afrikanerdom no longer constitute a critical mass within the society and cultural historical process of South Africa now, and a lot of the impact of the Bitterkomix style (as much as its excursions into social commentary) has dissipated into a comfortable kind of aesthetic chubbiness.At its worst this leads towards banalities, like Kannemeyer’s image of a “Black Angel”, his manufactured superhero (in The Ascension and Black Angel) saving the scions of the white middle classes from disasters of their historical making More interesting on a philosophical level, curiously enough, is the (admittedly somewhat prurient) preoccupation with pornography in a body of the work on show. Finding a space between hyperrealism and graphic stylisation, and playing off the pornographic paradox of intimacy and depersonalisation, the Obscure Men series is sometimes pointedly funny, but at other times disturbingly and startlingly true. Indeed, the artists are generally at their best when they are least resolved. While, for instance the hyper-crude deferred pornography in the series of images of the poesboekie heroine Tessa are genuinely funny and remind us of the way things used to be, there is more a sense of gravitas and meditative depth to a group of images where Botes has imposed underground-comic-styled emblematic figures on photographed wasteland landscapes, to seek out new monsters and new victims for a new millennium.There is also a series of self-portraits in this vein, where the semantic underpinnings of graphic style are used to evoke the consciousness of the subject as somehow between a metaphysical rock and very hard place.None of this quite works with the joyous exuberance of classic Bitterkomix, but – and here is the difference – the answers of seeing are not already given in the questions. We are not already part of the club, and maybe we wouldn’t want to be either.
{H}