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KINDERHOOK, NY — Meleko Mokgosi’s eponymous solo show, well installed at The School, Jack Shainman gallery’s outpost in Kinderhook, New York, will hit your sweet spot if you’re in the mood to see some colossal paintings in an atrium-like space that can compete with Dia:Beacon (but with paintings).
The serpentine walk down to the main gallery space mirrors the journey one must take to get to The School: all twists and turns, it requires a sustained, but thrilling, approach to reach your destination. You’ve only just parked your car, and you still need to walk over and cross the threshold into the holy site of your early spring pilgrimage.
The show consists of just three pieces, but what three pieces! Left to right, two works in oil and charcoal on panel announce their relationship to history painting, in particular the painterly account of protest/propaganda painting that traces its lineage from grand ecclesiastical works. A third piece, a series of framed inkjet prints on rag paper, is an institutional critique of museum didactics of so-called “Primitivist work” as well as of the oeuvres by the great heroes of modernism who appropriated Primitivism to set ablaze their own careers. Taken together, the three works, installed like some reverential pageant, play at history and truth.
The setup of these giant paintings, set side by side, does much of the work in telling that tale. There’s a touch of the Platonian in the painted work; there’s a truth about them that only those who know what Mokgosi is up to can see. Part of a series told in eight chapters titled Pax Kaffraria, only two works are on display, “Full Belly II” (2014), a larger than life triptych, and “Terra Pericolosa” (2013), a work on five panels. They are both exceedingly well-made, but have the telltale signs of ideological pictures, detracting from their quality as paintings. It’s as though the images might have been projected onto the canvas and then painted as if by numbers. “Full Belly II” pictures what must be the disciplinarian and sexist schools through which most Southern Africans get an education. When encountering it, it’s hard not to sing out “Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone!“ “Terra Pericolosa,” in proper colossal fashion, takes colonialism and imposed military might in Southern Africa to task, though the charge fails to incriminate anyone, any country, or any power in particular.
Mokgosi was born in Botswana and trained in some of the most renowned institutions in the US, and the paintings are indeed windows into Botswana’s and Southern Africa’s colonized political history, but more than that, at least in these two works, the narrative charge is a bit of a broadside since it’s not clear whether Mokgosi has in mind a contemporary subject whose story is both the subject and object of these paintings. Yes, that the history of colonialism lives on in the day to day political and bureaucratic morass is part of Southern Africa’s story. But it is also the case that Botswana, like the rest of Southern Africa, is now governed by autocratic leaders who owe their power to their bloodline and elite heritage, and some leaders who were once lionized as nationalist independence heroes have become murderous pariahs.
The two large works are painted in the visual language of the oppressor, and, in fact, “Full Belly II” invokes strong associations with the history of abstraction as couched in pictorial representation: two squeegee marks riff on Gerhard Richter’s work. One mark pictures a teacher’s green board, the other effaces the identities of the students who might just rise up and start singing your favorite Pink Floyd chorus. It matters, though, whether the marks represent students already silenced, or whether in making the mark Mokgosi has silenced the students. The mark itself won’t answer that question.
Part of the problem with the work is that by choosing to paint Platonian allegories in the visual tropes of pictorial realism, Mokgosi pictures the stories we tell each other about South Africa’s devastating problems. Sure, he comes closer to the truth than most have done, but by picturing his views as a generic allegory, and not a deeply specific, modulated one that you’d encounter in, say, Kehinde Wiley’s work, Mokgosi fails the more pressing Aristotelian task of naming, defining, and examining the problems he wants to target.
The third work, “Modern Art: The Root of African Savages III” (2015), plays on institutional critique as a production and exhibition strategy. Handwritten notes on museum didactics are enlarged and printed on archival quality paper, and framed, elegantly. They marry simple note-taking — here, the attempt and the necessary failure to fully grasp the way high culture defangs power — to Mark Lombardi’s drawings that map the interpenetration of corporations, money, and industrially scaled violence. However, as institutional critique of the way museums have disarmed the political and cultural devastation of colonialism, the work fails. As a set of objects framed off, commodified, and ready to be packaged, sold and placed in storage in some collector’s vault, the work becomes just another example of work that succeeded better as an idea.
But it is undeniable that the attempt to deal with this history in some kind of critical way is admirable, and the work so arranged is remarkable, and The School is where you want to see that critique live, and maybe die. So, it’s not a bad thing that the show feels like the homecoming of a major talent, whose works will soon trade among the powerful, and, who, one hopes, might yet attempt a more direct, more targeted criticism, and make it stick.
Meleko Mokgosi continues at Jack Shainman Gallery: The School (25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, New York) through April 12.