Folly, Frailty and Fear: Diane Victor University of Johannesburg 2021

This is not flattery

“Flattery”: excessive and insincere praise, given especially to further one’s own interests.

Diane Victor brushes off gratuitous positive feedback. Flattery as a human failing is a strong theme in this solo exhibition. In an interview Victor talked about the vain stupidity of contemporary society in terms of “the infatuation that seems to infiltrate our society, the need for flattery through one’s postings and one’s likes and dislikes on social media, and the folly of attempting to rewrite histories that cannot be changed”. [Love thy Selfie is the work reproduced on the exhibition invitation]. But as the definition above indicates, flattery is linked to insincerity. I declare up front – I have no self-interest in Diane Victor’s art or career (interest yes but self-interest, no) and my positive comments are neither excessive nor insincere.  So with this caveat, I have no qualms in recommending this astonishing exhibition. Diane Victor’s works are complex; extremely tough in the sense of being confrontational, challenging and thought-provoking; yet also aesthetically seductive and meticulously fine in their execution – breathtakingly so. There is a commitment, a passion, an authenticity and an incisive rigour which comes across in both the works and when Victor talks about them.  She said several times in the walkabout: “The one thing I cannot tolerate is indifference”. And surely few can respond to Victor’s works with indifference. 

Love thy Selfie part of Folly, Frailty and Fear showing at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery (on the main campus) until 19th May and thereafter virtually on The Moving Cube, the University’s on-line gallery.

Folly as a timeless and universal theme

Victor’s talent and consummate draughts[wo]manship aside, I have a particular interest in the theme of Folly. In one of my previous lives (when the Art History Department at Wits focused on the Renaissance in Italy), I developed a course on Netherlandish Art focusing on Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breughel – this long after Victor graduated from Wits. The idea of a safety valve for societal critique of power and control is seen across many cultures: the joker, the clown, the jester, the fool, can all comment in a way which nobody else can without being imprisoned – or worse. And the Fool’s voice in the late 15th and into the 16th century at the time of the Reformation, was a common theme amongst northern European thinkers, humanists, theologians and artists .

A woodcut from Bosch’s Stultifera Navis

In 1494 Sebastian Brandt wrote Das Narrenschiff (Stultifera Navis in Latin) or Ship of Fools. Brandt critiqued the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church by means of the bitingly satiric presentation of the weaknesses and vices of some 100 fools who set sail to Narragonia, the fool’s paradise. These satires were illustrated with woodcuts (some say by a young Durer). 

Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch  oil on wood; 58 X 33 cm; 1490–1500 Louvre, Paris. It is thought this was probably a side panel of a dismantled triptych (another blog in itself!)  In this rudderless Ship of Fools the gluttonous and hedonistic actions of the clergy and fools alike are satirized.

It is these Ship of Fools images which resonate with Diane Victor as seen in the first image in the exhibition space. 

Recalculating Charcoal, pastel and acrylic on digital print 99.5 x 172cm Victor found a map in a second hand store. She enlarged it digitally and then drew on it.

In 1509, several years after Brandt’s publication Erasmus wrote In Praise of Folly. In Erasmus’ text, Folly postures as a goddess and her adulatory companions include characters such as Self-love; Flattery; Forgetfulness; Laziness; Hedonism; Wantonness; Intemperance. Folly praises these characteristics as virtues. This (along with Victor’s “explanation” of her works) gives access to the images, particularly those in the very tough Oedipus series.  I write “explanation” in inverted commas as there is nothing overly determined about Victor’s works. They remain enigmatic, textured (both materially and symbolically), evocative and suggestively elusive – despite meticulous observation of realistic detail.  In her artist’s statement, Victor notes:  “I am interested in the technical component, the ambiguity that the technical interaction brings to the work. It is not about illustrating an argument, but the process and the medium that bring in other unexpected readings.”  

Dame Folly and Master Fool Charcoal on paper 183 x 129 cm. Dame Folly presents Master Fool with a laurel wreath (a symbol of triumph); the cat strokes up against Master Fool’s leg as if to say “I will love you even more if you get my supper” – self-interested flattery at its most brazen. And on the floor lie various traps.
Detail from top right of Dame Folly and Master Fool showing the little tortoise who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He was taken to see the world by two birds while holding onto a branch – until, that is, he spoke!  The effects of Victor’s actions of dropping charcoal dust onto the paper from above can also be seen here. The random process creates further unplanned connections and visual responses.
Victor’s visual sources are many and various. Master Folly draws on Rodin’s image of a confident, striding Balzac.  And for Master Folly’s face, Victor drew on images of Harvey Weinstein.
Sleep of Oblivion Charcoal on paper 177 x 131 cm Victor comments here on the folly of trying to escape one’s past and history. One’s past remains with one wherever one travels. “Etched into memory” takes on visual form here, with memories and histories “written into” the body.

Exhibition layout

3D tour of the exhibition gives an overview of the exhibition layout. In the first part of the exhibition are large works from the In Praise of Folly series,  the Oedipus series, 2 black/greenboard chalk drawings and a very large scale work (190 X 280): Some go mad, some run away 

Lessons unlearned: Geography 101 – when pressure becomes too much, explosive eruptions occur Chalk on blackboard 137.5 x 184.5cm. Here a lesson on volcanic eruption is juxtaposed with another subterranean activity – mining and more specifically the hideous folly of the Marikana massacres 
Lessons Unlearned: Long, long division Chalk on blackboard 137 x 152 cm. Here Victor takes the unfathomable number of 1.5 trillion (the estimated cost of corruption and State Capture in South Africa) and by means of a class room problem, works out that if this sum was divided amongst SA’s 60 million population – each person would receive R25,000.

A very large smoke image printed onto chiffon suspended from the ceiling, breaks the long cavernous gallery space.

In her extraordinary smoke drawings, with paper suspended or hand-held face-down, Victor “draws” from below with the soot from a lit candle – all the while being careful not to set the paper alight. There is no way to preserve the smoke drawings – when touched they disintegrate. The work seen here has been printed onto chiffon.
Fire Curtain is a smoke drawing, woven into a huge 320 by 300 cm piece of fabric.  While working at the Atelier le Grand Village in France, Côme Touvey, a textile designer, incorporated Victor’s drawing into the very fabric itself. The large linen cloth is woven, thread by thread, with 73 shades of grey that blend into one another capturing the light and shadow of the image.

Smoke drawings on glass; drawings on stone; and ink and gouache drawings

There are further smaller works in various media (smoke drawings printed on glass), drawings on stone, and on the back wall approximately 24 smaller ink and gouache drawings all of which continue the comment on the often senseless madness and inversion of norms of everyday life.  

Heavy shadows, lightly thrown is an installation of 14 smoke drawings on glass. These are portraits of South African women killed by someone they trusted. Originally shown as The 14 Stations at the Aardklop Festival, the title recalls the 12 stations of the Cross with its associations of violence, loss and grief. The already ghost-like images become doubly ghost-like in the ephemeral shadows cast on the wall behind.
Thou Shalt Not  10 litho crayon drawings on stone of varying sizes The title gives clear reference to the 10 Commandments

On-line viewing is NO substitute for close viewing of the actual works

Diane Victor will give another walkabout on Saturday 8th May and the Gallery is open by appointment until 19th May. Contact Titus on 011 559 2556 or email Seeing the virtual exhibition is a wonderful reminder but cannot do this extraordinary body of work justice. Victor’s eye for detail, technical virtuosity, and brave experimentation with different media and processes is profound. All artworks need to be seen in the original but these more than most! 

Pyramid Scheme 3 colour litho 76 X 56.5cm (edition of 35) Artist’s Proof 1/3

More from Diane Victor   


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