Johannesburg has be untidy for me and I am pleased with the so-called outcomes - the byproducts that have come from this experience. Having been on the move for hundreds of days I am now going to spend some time in my studio back at Atlantic House in Cape Town. It will be strange - I don't have a dog, I now ride a fold-up bicycle, I am no longer a collaborator. It will be strange and I am looking forward...
A commercial gallery show can happen to the most unlikely of artists. Christian Nerf never planned for one at Art on Paper; it simply evolved through a discussion around a collection of drawings he was "trying to flog to get back to Cape Town".
It's not as if Nerf has been completely set against a commercial show, or making money from his art per se - he usually prefers to barter - but he has operated outside of the gallery system, or any system it must be said, for so long that doing so has become part of his identity as an artist, or non-artist artist - he even eschews the title.
Anarchic artists are a dying breed; today's generation are desperate to be absorbed by the commercial gallery system. Getting signed to the Stevenson, having a sell-out show, being the centre of attraction at the annual FNB Joburg Art Fair, which opened this weekend, and showing anywhere dubbed "international" is what the best art dreams are made of. To do so requires conforming to, rather than questioning, the system that supports these aspirations. It's a bind, for sure, if the nature of your work involves exposing social contrivances. But it seems, ironically, as if conforming is the new non-conforming - as long as you do it with your tongue firmly in your cheek, though holding this pose for any length of time is impossible and eventually becomes the mainstream position anyway.
This may be why Avant Car Guard (the now defunct art collective made up of Zander Blom, Michael McGarry and Jan-Henri Booyens) quickly dispensed with their derisive commentary on the local art world - like The Invoice, a painting of a receipt they tried to sell at the Joburg Art Fair in 2009.
Nerf has played this game too; setting up a bogus Facebook identity with Douglas Gimberg, which they dubbed Gimberg Nerf, and befriending everyone in the art world until they had secured 666 friends before closing the account and running an obituary for the persona in The Star's classified section.
Yet Nerf's rebellious flair and resistance against commercial ends makes him a slightly anachronistic figure who conforms to a romantic ideal of the artist we like to cling to in the belief that there is at least one pursuit that isn't shaped, cheapened, by market forces. Is resistance futile, or even possible? It's a question worth asking as the Joburg Art Fair is about to open. Nerf's recent exhibition and subtle presence at the fair this year at Art on Paper's stand doesn't provide answers but complicates the question.
This is because things are not so straightforward. His exhibition, Itinerant Studio No33: Vestiges, at Art on Paper might be a concession towards being part of the gallery system, but it is also not quite a conventional show.
He is perhaps one of the few artists who can do a gallery show without doing one. He does this by turning part of the gallery into one of his itinerant studios, as he dubs them. They are temporary working spaces set in conventional art spaces - like the Goethe-on-Main and Room galleries - as well as completely unlikely venues for art like a Scout Hall in Parkview, to the small foldaway tray in a plane. Wherever they are located, he gets to redetermine the "space" and its expected functions. In a gallery this means he is able to exercise some control, while exorcising some of the baggage it entails for an artist.
Nerf knows how to make himself at home, quickly. Since he started his "iterant studios", he has perfected a ritual display that instantly announces his presence and evokes a studio atmosphere. A bunch of browning bananas hangs on a hook alongside equipment and other studio staples like a bag of good-quality ground coffee and an old-fashioned espresso maker.
He doesn't need to travel with coffee; next door to Art on Paper The Three Marys offers a great brew. This ritualised display might assert a studio setting, but given the latter point it has become an installation that reads as art. This art space shifts how we read things in it and perhaps that cannot be avoided or upturned at all.
Perhaps Nerf is simply going through the motions of making peace with this space, for he has also conceded with selling some framed drawings that are part of the display. Naturally, the frames aren't ordinary frames; they are bespoke wooden ones fashioned by a furniture-maker friend who has turned the works into must-have art objects. I suppose the thinking was that if you are going to create an art object for sale you should go the full hog and amplify the act so as to revel in that moment for what it is. What is that moment?
Nerf has always wanted to communicate with people; he is now starting to think that selling work to people who will display it in their homes or offices might achieve this end, he says. Yet Nerf's investment in creating a product that can now be sold - previously he was mostly interested in performances and repurposing found objects and the process of making things rather than the final outcome - has shifted something quite fundamental about his work, or perhaps a fundamental shift in his practice has allowed him to sell work.
This change boils down to his interest in the mark he makes; that is, the line on the paper. It is not that he is precious about what the "line" looks like; he has conceived of ways of drawing so that this aspect is out of his control. As such, his series of Drawing with Obstacles sees him holding a drawing implement in his fist. He doesn't look at the paper and makes the mark by stepping over an empty bottle crate that is taped to the floor in front of it. To further ensure his detachment, the paper is turned around for the end product, so, he is drawing upside down. The other series of drawings are also products of simple devices - folding paper in the In and Of Itself series - to distance him from getting too over-involved or precious about the mark.
The resulting drawings are surprisingly pleasing given this unconventional process; but more importantly, they are also distinctive in the sense that all of the works in the Drawing with Obstacles series appear similar - colourful, large, graphs that deny the seeming chaos that you would think the process would entail. The In and Of Itself drawings are also united by a similar motif; hexagonal shapes that have been shaded in with coloured pencils. These drawings are simple, yet desirable, marketable and perhaps even fashionable, evoking this modernist abstraction aesthetic that all the young artists are embracing.
For Nerf, they are an end to a means, the means being "unthought", as he terms it; a psychic space that doesn't require thinking. Absorbed in a physical, ritualistic act, allows this to happen. It's not quite an anti-conceptualist act. But it is about using art not to think, which does seem to be in opposition to conceptualism, which has, and continues, to inform contemporary art practice, though idea-driven work isn't an art-fair favourite, which accounts to some degree for this rise of new formalism. In this way, however, it seems that Nerf is able to sell what appears to be desirable artworks that look fantastic in their bespoke frames, without actually selling what it is that the art does; because what it is, the function it serves, is for him alone to enjoy.
As such, what he is selling is a meaningless by-product of what he does, unless the act of looking might enable the viewer to arrive at a similar kind of meditative state, but this seems unlikely. Nerf hasn't calculated not to give of himself, in fact he would probably vehemently deny this, because in the act of drawing he is completely invested in what he is doing. It is a necessity if he is to arrive at the psychic state he craves. Hence he has set up systems to draw that control the outcome. He is not a complete anarchist; he embraces self-imposed systems and craves repetition, rituals. In this way he creates his own terms or conditions of acquiescence. For now this happens to coincide with something that is sellable. Unexpected, however, is the fact that his interest in creating objects - that are deemed marketable art objects - has been a liberating experience, freeing him from the clutter in the mind. - published in The Sunday Independent, September 29, 2013.