Judith Mason

In the tenth century Meshullam ben Kalonymus composed a prayer that is a compilation of biblical expressions in an alphabetic acrostic. It is traditionally sung on the Jewish Day of Atonement, celebrating God’s largesse. However, one stanza offers a converse position. The cantor does not sing aloud, and the community turns its collective face away: “… the works of man are plans of mischief. His habitation is in the midst of deceit; his bed is filled with worms when he is buried in the cleft of the earth.” Judith Mason brings a taste of this mortal horror, vulnerability and fickleness to the surface in her violent oeuvre.

Judith Mason, The man who sang and the woman who kept silent In the tenth century Meshullam ben Kalonymus composed a prayer that is a compilation of biblical expressions in an alphabetic acrostic. It is traditionally sung on the Jewish Day of Atonement, celebrating God’s largesse. However, one stanza offers a converse position. The cantor does not sing aloud, and the community turns its collective face away: “… the works of man are plans of mischief. His habitation is in the midst of deceit; his bed is filled with worms when he is buried in the cleft of the earth.” Judith Mason brings a taste of this mortal horror, vulnerability and fickleness to the surface in her violent oeuvre.An exile from the commercial gallery circuit, Mason’s work ethic nonetheless remains relentlessly sharp. Her prolific output is not for the gentle, invoking ugliness, aberrant sexuality and the viciousness of hell – as much a literary hell, as the hell of being excluded by the art world and the hell that comes with old age. Entering the Standard Bank Gallery, you find yourself face to face with an installation contemporising Dante’s Inferno (2007-8). Replete with furies on wheels, it segues conflicting chaos from Dante’s world with some from ours: suicide bombers sidle with the Whore of Babylon and disposable babies.But don’t get seduced by the devils and heartless spirits, the eyeless creatures and mutilated forms, bellowing with loud silence at you. These works engage mystical values without pedantry; they offer a depth of spiritual focus that repels yet attracts. This is most patent in the artists’ books downstairs. These astonishingly beautiful works, revealing Mason’s commitment to her material, both conceptual and artistic, and her skill with pencil, etching needle or scalpel, are treasures, trapped unfortunately behind glass.Visual cleverness in several pieces, where, for instance, the chopping of a nightingale in two, with a real axe installed in the work, or a pair of bloodied (but real) boxing gloves adjoined to the painting of a bruised and pummelled head of an ape, suggest an ethos closer to European Dada than the one-liner aesthetics of post-modernism. This is highlighted in The Man who Sang and the Woman who kept Silent (1998), a work of poignant testimony to the need for dignity articulated by a young woman degraded and broken by apartheid.This is a distinguished exhibition, thwarted only by printing in the catalogue that compromises the excruciating fineness of detail in Mason’s draftsmanship. Part on an ongoing project celebrating stalwarts of our art community, Mason’s exhibition is characterised by its meatiness, and the push-pull of articulated horror and esoteric mystery so much a part of her oeuvre.Judith Mason: a prospect of icons is on at the Sasol Art Museum, 52 Ryneveld Street, Stellenbosch until March 28, 2009
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