Grobler and muses

Cape Times, Melvin Minnaar

In Lien Botha’s engrossing new photographic show at the Erdmann Contemporary (until the end of the month) there is a smashing picture titled Liza in Irma Stern’s studio, Rosebank, Cape Town. A warmly-toned, tightly-structured and moody image, it shows the artist Liza Grobler in contemplative recline on a couch, her nudity gently echoed in a detail from one of Stern’s paintings on the wall. It is simply superb.

grobler and muses

Last week, Grobler was hardly sitting still at the very same studio in Rosebank. A stream of visitors – art students, but also well and semi-acquainted artist friends – was arriving to see what she had put up for display in the museum’s upstairs show area. But some were also there to participate in the extended three-week project. Grobler is ‘hosting’ a show invitingly called Visitor.

The grand, famous Stern house (one of the city’s great cultural gems), laded with paintings and eccentric African objects, hasn’t seen such a wave of energy spread through its spaces in yonks. Grobler has turned her substantial show into a celebration of art production, acknowledging Stern (her birthday) and her own tenth anniversary (her first solo exhibition in 1999) in the process.

Not only is she showing a variety of work that ranges from a large, on-your-face painting, sneaky and amusing prints, and deliciously wacko floor-pieces to her signature woven and knitted, soft-fabric sculptures with their highly tactile presence, but she is also engaging other creative pals in an ongoing feast of invention, a virtual daily ‘residency’ programme and then some parties. Needless to say, internet blogs record the run and broaden public participation.

Grobler’s website spells it out: “Art-making is a social practice. ‘Exhibition’ implies ‘viewer’. Somehow everyone’s involved. The exhibition will change daily: objects, sounds, friends and acquaintances will occupy the space. We celebrate human interaction and the slightly absurd tendency of life to connect a seemingly random list of events.” It’s an invitation hard to resist.

Early in the week a gang of well-known artists turned up for a morning session of nude life-drawing. Their efforts – half-completed sheets of paper stuck on matter-of-fact artist’s easels in Irma’s drawing room – are playful counterpoints to the space’s stern and solemn ambience. After all, the old lady was engaged in the same artistic process in the room next door, decades ago.

On Thursday, Lien Botha herself took up ‘residence’ in the upstairs’ space reserved for artist’s visitors. She brought along her African Grey, the bird connecting her presence with her own exhibition downtown called Parrot Jungle. A throng of young art students piled in and took up room around the two artists. One couldn’t side-step the vibe of creative enterprise on the flow, and know in your heart that the old lady would have approved.

That enterprise – make it hands-on, hard work – is, of course, what Grobler is known for: textiles and other materials meticulously and densely crocheted, plaited and knitted, and turned into forms. Sometimes funny, sometimes surreal, one cannot escape their spatial invasion. Here, they have a jolly contemporary conversation with the great Stern paintings and all the gutsy bric-a-brac of the collection.

If you’ve never been to the Irma Stern, this is the time. If you’ve been, Grobler would welcome you cheerfully as Visitor.

A view of Liza Grobler’s installation: His Master’s Shongololo snakes from the fireplace, while The Other Udder lingers in the background.