Spotlight: Norman Catherine in Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now

I was born in 1949 in the small coastal town of East London in South Africa. Other than two years of formal art training at high school, I am for the most part self-taught. I live at the Hartbeespoort Dam, which is about one hour’s drive northwest of Johannesburg. During the 1980s I spent time in Los Angeles and New York, and I held an exhibition at Area-X gallery in the East Village in 1986. Besides printmaking I also work in various other media, including painting, sculpture, mixed media, and bronze.

The portfolio of six hand-colored drypoint etchings entitled States of Emergency, which are on view as part of the Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now exhibition at MoMA, were done in 1988, two years after the State of Emergency was declared in South Africa. It was during this time of the final death throes of apartheid that the previous regime was at its most vicious and paranoid.

War Lords, Witch Hunt, and Prototype depict the state of maniacal frenzy and bloodthirsty, animalistic behavior of the Special Branch Police, who would stop at nothing to keep the status quo. Their demonic grins with forked/snake tongues speak of duplicity and deceitfulness. Intensive Care shows South Africa as the patient (1948 being the year in which the Nationalist Party came into power), awaiting imminent punishment and death while trapped in a bed of barbed wire. The patient is both black and white, denoting the interconnectedness of the people of South Africa and that all, regardless of race, would suffer the consequences of the bed that the Apartheid Regime created.

Psycho-analysed reflects a schizophrenic society as well as the personal turmoil and inner conflicts that many a South African felt at the time, the tearing apart of oneself and identity within the maelstrom of violence, upheaval, and uncertainty for the future. Low-flying represents a visionary daydream/nightmare of carnivorous creatures, reminiscent of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, sowing the seeds of destruction and devouring everything in their path, angels of Death accompanying them.

As I really don’t enjoy verbalizing about my work I have taken the liberty of using a few extracts from a monograph published by Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, in 2000. These extracts, written by Hazel Friedman, illustrate the gist of my work far better than I would be able to do.

“History and horror, crime and conflict, sci-fi and sexual transgression. Thus begins the attempt to define the art of Norman Catherine. The lexicon broadens: comic, violent, whimsical, playful, sly, satirical, brutish, anxious, at times even idealistic. And so it continues: vivid, brilliant, psychologically disconcerting, emotionally unforgiving, visually unforgettable. His art is distinctly, defiantly dystopian in vision. His landscapes are surrealistic sites of struggle between a bizarre bestiary of creatures. Contorted forms rendered crudely in brash, cartoon hues cavort in irrational spaces. They resemble mutant products of an experiment gone comically awry. Catherine’s sensibility is as whimsical as it is sardonic—as light as it is dark. It is within the moral desolation of a jagged sociopolitical landscape, lodged between the bookends of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, that Catherine’s art is most frequently located. In many respects, he epitomizes the ultimate cynic. He eyeballs South Africa’s heart of darkness with unblinking alienation. He conveys his vision through contorted forms performing macabre rites or dances of dandified revelry against the backdrop of a dissipating empire. Yet just at the point where he galvanises his viewers’ sense of outrage so too does he assuage it through laughter. Like the puppeteer or the ventriloquist, he mediates the message through his marionettes.

His prodigious oeuvre is pervaded by a revulsion of hypocrisy and sanctimonious political posturing. But his imagery also straddles the internal worlds of wonder and nightmare, swerving between literal commentary and less palpable hallucinatory realms. His syncopated pas de deux with dualities evokes a madness that is as much of the mind as it is of the material world. Throughout, his work embraces the anarchy that sizzles beneath the seamless appearance of structures and systems. In short, Catherine is an artist who defies neat description in terms of iconography and medium. If easy classifications are required, then call him an artist driven by a defiance towards preconception, dogma and rigid definition. He is simultaneously Velcro and Teflon. Influences attach themselves to his work like dust particles. Yet he also shakes them off with equal ease, leaving the viewer with the raw visceral impact of his imagery, striking in a place where a laugh and a gasp are indistinguishable.

I hope that you will visit my website to see more of my work, and please visit this important exhibition.