When, in 1992, Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes began publishing Bitterkomix—the underground comic books written mainly in their native language, Afrikaans—they had a clear target for their biting satire, for apartheid had not yet entirely fallen in South Africa. Bitterkomix was a huge hit—revelatory, even liberating for many young South Africans. Then rainbow democracy was born, and truth and reconciliation warily accomplished; Kannemeyer moved into murkier struggles, and, eventually, from books to walls.
The master “Boer punk,” as he’s been called, coldly holds up a mirror to the failure of good liberal intentions, mainly regarding race and crime. At Shainman, Kannemeyer showed large- and medium-scale paintings, works on paper and collages—21 pieces altogether, mostly from 2011, combining vividly discomfiting comiclike images and text. Nearly all depict queasy encounters between whites and blacks. Especially broad in its satire are the confrontations of a balding, middle-aged Tintin character—frequently sweating with anxiety—and a black minstrel type with big red lips and googly eyes. In The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, a small work on paper, Tintin dreams in bed, while the minstrel has materialized, naked and shocked-looking, on an animal rug. Tables are turned in the 63-inch-square canvas Some Kind of Boo-Boo, in which three minstrel doctors diagnose Tintin, who lies sweating on a gurney. In Very Very Good, a white artist (Kannemeyer’s self-portrait, I was told) critiques a distressed-looking minstrel-like student, assuring him in a speech bubble that really, he does like the work, and not just because the student is black.
While some works are Africa-specific, depicting politicians or events unfamiliar to audiences here, others directly implicate Americans—B Is for the Beauty of Military Life (2011), for example, which shows a blond female soldier making the thumbs-up gesture of Abu Ghraib above a battered man (Kannemeyer, in the thick of it again). Kannemeyer scales up beautifully; you can imagine these images working just fine in books, but large they are effective in a different way, and are oddly reminiscent of paintings by John Wesley or even Kerry James Marshall.
My favorite works, though, were three small, tidy collages laden with emotional contradiction. Here Kannemeyer juxtaposes news clippings about violent events with gleaming ads and his own very beautiful, less comical, drawings of politicians or heroes. In these, formal orderliness belies a content of economic and social breakdown, much as in the larger works cheery colors sublimate violence of a more psychological nature. I imagine Kannemeyer’s work would be tough to live with, its message the darker for all the pretty packaging.
Photo: Anton Kannemeyer: Very Very Good, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 63 by 68 7/8 inches; at Jack Shainman.