Mindscaping the Mine Dumps

Humour is subtly present in most of Carl Becker's works currently (December 1999) on show at the Karen McKerron Gallery , writes Alex Dodd.

There's nothing like taking a look at something familiar from a different angle. A mere change of vantage point can entirely reinvent a thing to which you've grown inunured. New life. It's simply not what you thought it was before. In Carl Becker's paintings and pencil drawings that something is the city of Johannesburg.

Becker has forsaken the distant, deluding postcard views of a sparkling Johannesburg from the north. He hasn't even got snagged on the distinctive flashing red Coke sign of Ponte Tower that, in a delightfully ironic twist, has taken on the iconographic power of a Statue of Liberty or an Eiffel Tower. Rather, Becker images Johannesburg from the south. The blocky Jo'burg skyline,not far removed from that of any other major Western city, is suddenly just a backdrop. Foregrounded are the strange wastelands that surround the minedumps - those odd humps of earth that embody the essential mythology of this entire city. The periphery takes centre stage. The outskirts become the big story.

Becker spends days wandering about the dumps with his box of tricks like some oddly displaced 19th-century landscape artist on a fieldtrip." In a sense I actually come from the tradition of romantic landscape painters," says Becker." They were my precursors.

"I've been looking at Jo'burg for a long time. I did my first drawings in Joburg in the Seventies," he says. "But I've had a very discontinuos painting career. I left painting when I left art school for the first time in 1980. I was disillusioned with it, so I did all sorts of things - got into activism and opstook, doing media work in the days of the United Democratic Front(UDF) and stuff. I designed the logo for the UDF." Laughter that is intended to say a lot of things - not all funny.

It's a quiet kind of laughter that seems to lurk inside Becker - an amusement at the surrealism of his own and other's circumstances. This humour is subtly present in most of the works that are currently of show at Karen McKerron Gallery. But it peppers images that are epic in content. Vast trajectories of time and space play themselves out through small human gestures. Sometimes the landscapes become abstract territories in which Victorian ladies, African warriors, women with buckets on their heads, miners and magnates stake their turf and tussle over things. Human forms are dwarfed by vast stretches of space and time. Huge waves of history render individual importance comedic. Humans are little and almost cartoon-like in Becker's work.

It was when he returned to Johannesburg in 1991, after completing his master's at Rhodes, that Becker began engaging with the landscape of the mine dumps with all their strange magnetism." I suppose I feel ambivalent about this landscape," he says. "I have a sort of sentimental attachment to it. I grew up in Bedfordview; I live in Yeoville. My father used to work in Germiston. But there's no real reason for sentimentality. As a landscape it is often bland and nondescript. But I think it has to do with the minedumps representing our history. They represent for me Joburg's uniqueness. Otherwise it could be some middle-American city . Except it isn't. It's just too decaying.

"There are all those dumps along the M2 East which is actually the original Main Reef. If you drive along there you realise its changing all the time. Somebody in some office somewhere has got a programme, but we don't know what it is. Things disappear in the landscape. I go away and return a few months later and something will have gone. Entire dumps disappear. But as these things get taken out, you suddenly see views you haven't seen before.

"I drive along and don't really know who the mine dumps belong to. I'm probably not even allowed there. But one comes across these weird shapes and discarded objects. Curious mechanical remnants. Prefabricated houses - with people living in them - that used to be the mine managers' office. You come across unexpected things. It's a really dislocated landscape that sets off a whole train of thought visually. It's a landscape where nothing is solid."

REVIEW - Mail and Guardian - December 1999

'INCIDENTAL LANDSCAPES'

Very rich, but also very quiet

Carl Becker's Incidental Landscapes continues his mine-dump theme, but includes in almost every work a pool of water. He sees this as a symbol of redemption and regeneration.

The paintings are small scale and make a quiet impression. They are subtle, with everything happening in understated ways. Vast scapes of sand are filled with little figures and objects. The colours are modulated and gentle, with sizzles of brightness where the colour sings. Becker says; "Its amazing what happens when you mix a little grey or indigo into a yellow."

What is astonishing is his gentle transition through colour from a deep, strong burnt orange into Naples yellow, then a whitened dust rose, landing in a mottled spring green - and none of this clashes." I get my colours from the soils I see on mine dumps," he says.

The overall impression and tonality is most unusual - very rich, but quiet.

Typical of his work is balanced abstraction, which comes from using aerial perspectives with realistic figures and getting them to work together.

The compositions are very like those of Edgar Degas - a painter he admires- who is known for his genius in structure. Typical of his (and Becker's) work are off-beat angles and compositions, as in snapshots where figures walk off the format. The result is an immediacy and a feeling of suspension in time. It is satisfying, a feeling of momentary balance.

Pool 1 and Pool 2 show this very well. They are very satisfying paintings, as is Survivor. Suburban Remnants, full of the most superb, glowing browns, shows another aspect of his work, with a Bushman feel that unconsciously permeates the paintings.

Overall, the works are lovely in an understated way. They are 'streams of consciousness' works, contemplative works. They are things one could live with over long stretches of time and still feel their settled pleasantness.

September 2001 - Carol Lee Gallery Review by Robyn Elliot in Business Day