In Penny Siopis’s painting Pine, we see a man and a woman lying on the ground in a forest, almost entirely obscured by a screen of pine needles and cones that forms a meditative, batik-like pattern of ocher and brown. They are alone in this quiet landscape, and the man’s hand is firmly clamped over the woman’s mouth. In Three Trees, a naked woman sits against a tree, her legs splayed and tied with rope to two other trees. Two figures kneel over her, pushing her legs farther apart. The image is rendered in sensual pours of deep reds, pinks, grays and purples that form a lacquered, visceral sheen. The sharp tug between seductive surface and troubling content is the core of the Johannesburg-based artist’s work, which for years has employed erotic and violent allegorical images of women culled from such sources as Japanese woodblock prints, news stories and ancient myths.
For her latest body of work, made in 2008-09, Siopis restricted herself to glue and ink on canvas, producing remarkably liquid, luminous swaths of color. The technique is especially effective when the ink is red, which she favors (previous series featured only this hue). As with Louise Bourgeois’s recent series “Blood Ties,” where naked babies and women are rendered in pale red washes of gouache, Siopis’s wet reds and pinks vividly conjure blood and flesh. In Anonymous, which depicts an androgynous seated figure holding a flower, glossy saturated crimsons evoke the dense red of a blood clot, and the figure looks skinless. A tiny baby is barely visible in Miracle, falling through an almost entirely abstract composition of swirled and splashed color that resembles celestial gases; in this painting, Siopis uses gold, cream, mahogany and a splatter of dark brown the color of dried blood.
Allusions to the female body as a site of birth, bleeding and violence are a constant in Siopis’s work, but are deftly tempered with unsettling beauty. In Still Waters, a woman’s face floats almost negligibly in a vast tapestry of yellow-green lily pads. Ophelia is the obvious reference; in Siopis’s rendition, the woman stares out with an eerily calm gaze that seems, in its resignation, to accuse. In a recent interview, the artist said she values unpredictability and likes working on a knife’s-edge balance between form and formlessness. She maintains the same kind of balance between victimhood and culpability, erotic ecstasy and violence or sacrifice. It is rich, and difficult, territory. Quoting Bataille’s assertion that art can offer “ravishment without death,” Siopis offers an apt epigram for her captivating, disquieting work.
Photo: Penny Siopis: Three Trees, 2009, ink and glue on canvas, 783⁄4 by 981⁄2 inches; at Michael Stevenson.