APT, France — The South African artist Wim Botha is a sculptor’s sculptor. Whether working in relatively traditional media like bronze, wood, marble, and paper or, lately, more unconventional materials including Styrofoam and fluorescent light tubes, he creates carvings and castings that invoke a European lineage stretching back from Rodin to Michelangelo to Greco-Roman antiquity. Painting, however, seems to be the catalyst for the vast sculptural installation that forms the centerpiece (and provides the title) for his exhibition at the Fondation Blachère center for contemporary African art, “Still Life with Water” (2016). Its swirling, funneling pairs of carved Styrofoam wings, glowing light tubes, and reflective sky-blue panels evoke the momentous mobilizations of angels in countless paintings of the assumption of Mary, the fall of the rebel angels (especially Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s take on the latter biblical episode), or the epic scenes adorning the ceilings of Rome’s Sant’Ignazio or Venice’s San Pantalon. But what to make of Botha’s angels; is this a scene of apocalyptic spiraling or glorious ascent? This will read like a cop out, but I think it’s both.
All the elements in Botha’s exhibition — from the hanging sculpture of dueling lions that greets visitors at the entrance to the busts carved from old leather-bound books at the edges of the main installation — are suspended between contrasting interpretations. In the case of the pine lions frozen mid-attack in “A Thousand Things part 15” (2012), Botha evokes the anticipation of the moment before a deadly battle begins. The tension in his carved book figures, like “Untitled (Witness series 14)” (2013), is less dramatic but more technically impressive; it rests on Botha’s ability to create a human bust with depth and a sense of interiority while also foregrounding the object’s materiality — that is, the fact that he has taken a saw or sander to a stack of books pressed firmly in a vice. The gentle black-and-white gradients of the books’ pages are still apparent, their leather spines often still legible; one is made up of volumes of the Encyclopedia Americana, another from a mix of dictionaries and literary anthologies. These works read both as stacks of books and sculptural busts. A set of smaller, carved wooden busts featuring the faces of children on one side (children who look just like the bronze ballerina by Edgar Dégas) and grim skulls on the other take the two-faced theme to a logical but heavy-handed extreme. Similarly, “Still Life with Water” is an enveloping sculptural composition that depicts both the dramatic fall and heroic resurgence of angels. Botha has perfected a rough-hewn, not-quite-finished aesthetic (full of zip ties, vices, wires, and cables) that tantalizingly straddles different interpretations.
The deft balance of abstraction and figuration and the dramatic suspension of movement and time in Botha’s sculptures are instantly engaging, but to what end? Is this a game of art historical name-checking and material mashup for its own sake, or is there something more profound at play here? Judging by Botha’s own comments about his work, his aims are purely aesthetic. But it’s hard not to see in “Still Life with Water” an ultimatum of sorts, a forked road leading either to fiery doom or redemptive light. Will our civilization continue on its downward spiral or right its course and soar over the obstacles we’re currently facing — be they environmental, social, political, economic, or all of the above? This exhibition offers no clear answers, just an opportunity to reflect on the balance of pessimism and optimism in your own outlook. So, I put it to you: are the angels crashing or climbing?