Joni Brenner has worked within and against the genre of portraiture since the early 1990s, making portraits in a range of media including oil on canvas, on wax slabs and on hard stone surfaces, and others made using clay and plasticine, sometimes cast in bronze and plaster.
The five oils on display here are all of Fred who agreed to arrive at the studio twice a week for a period lasting almost one year. Like Wilson, Fred arrived with consistent regularity, and so the portraits proceeded with a rhythm or pattern of repeated looking that Brenner understood to be the crux of her practice: looking, and looking again, learning from this repeat-action process. The five portraits presented on the stand give some indication of the range of her work, and of the intensity of her investigation.
The living presences she portrays take on an existential immediacy; they challenge and invigorate that long established tradition of portraiture focused on exact, recognizable likenesses. Both painterly and sculptural, the work resists the flatness of two-dimensional surfaces, hoping to give greater embodiment to her subjects.
Most of her portraits were of one man – Wilson Mootane, whose death in 2010 resulted in a personal and creative crisis for her. Partly as a result of this loss, she extended her engagement with portraiture to include studies of a friend, Fred, and then further to include portraits of Russell, and most recently her husband Scott.
Portraits exist on the threshold between life and death, marking a presence, and in time coming to stand for an absence – an idea that, for Brenner, shifted out of the abstract in the wake of Wilson’s death, and in turn gave rise to an increased focus on the skull work she had begun in 2004. Six more recent of these watercolour skull studies are seen here alongside the robust oils and point to her exploration of remembrance, presence and absence as an intrinsic part of portraiture.
Karel Nel discusses the work of Joni Brenner at Cape Town Art Fair 2015
One of the six watercolours on display is from Brenner’s investigations of the juvenile Taung skull, which pushed her understanding of lineage and belonging back some 2.5 million years. Paintings in watercolour, and a range of other media were shown at the Life of bone exhibition in 2011, which she co-curated with Karel Nel, for the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand.
In 2014 assisted by Angus Taylor at DSW, Brenner scaled up and cast in bronze three of the four new small clay skulls she had made. Titled ‘Intimations of continuity’ these compelling large-scale skulls were exhibited at the Nirox Sculpture Park in May, and have opened up an exciting new set of possibilities for Brenner’s work in the future. The small clay originals were also cast in bronze and will be shown at a forthcoming exhibition with Art First.
Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe Brenner is Principal Tutor in Art History at Wits School of Arts. For further details please view her profile on the gallery website: www.artfirst.co.uk.