Jane Alexander's work is both subtle and bold, attractive and ugly

The internet doesn’t reveal much about artist Jane Alexander’s most recent works but there’s a lot of information on her most famous piece, titled Butcher Boys. It’s said to be the most popular contemporary piece in the South African National Art Gallery’s collection and consists of three life-size sculptures of distorted men which were completed as part of her Masters Degree in Fine Arts at Wits in 1988. I can picture it stopping traffic in the halls of the gallery - simply because it seems to teeter on a powerful knife’s edge, somewhere between subtle and bold, attractive and ugly. The three, quite muscular life-sized casts of almost naked men with strange penis sheaths looking thoughtful and serious (who are also vulgar, strange beast creatures with horns) fascinate me. Through them, the artist seems to reveal, on the outside, the concurrent human potential for refinement and bestiality.

When it comes to talking about the meaning of her work, the artist herself is often described both as one of the most highly regarded artists in South Africa and also as one of the most reticent (artthrob.co.za). She prefers her work to speak for itself. My estimation of her went up even more when I read this. When it comes to describing works of art, words are often like an ill-fitting coat that distances one from a direct experience which is so valid and purely because it is so personal. And meaning changes over time. So to say that this piece is solely about the artist's comment on violence and apartheid would be to limit it's relevance.

The only comment on her work from Jane Alexander herself I find on my brief foray on the internet is this; “my themes are drawn from the relationship of individuals to hierarchies and the presence of aggression, violence, victimisation, power and subservience.”

A later work depicting street children shown in her post-96 solo show titled Bomm Boys and Lucky Girls continues this theme. It depicts thoughts evoked by Alexander's personal experience with street children on Loop Street in Cape Town where she lives. Here there's an appealing fantastical innocence about the children-come-animal figures, combined with a predatory disturbing element. Artthrob.co.za attributes this to the fact that the social reality they experience results in them being "both preyed on and predatory."

Overall, I think it's the seeming contradictions and eery clues that give Alexander's work its power. - Give me subtle, moving, and intriguing any day. So much better than when artists need to overtly state and ply the motivation and meaning behind their work. For me it's all about subtle evocation. Hand it to me on a plate and you take away the pleasure in tasting it fully.

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