The subjects for these works are things which hold a fascination for me, namely mountains, rough, rocky, rugged, elemental mountains, and skyscrapers, those beautiful and ugly steel, concrete and glass colossi which bestride our consciousness, perhaps replacing in our psyche the Gothic cathedrals that dominated the skylines of cities in the past.
Mountains and buildings are made of the same stuff. Or rather, humans, by using their intellect, have fashioned their world and created their civilization by taking from what they find around them. Man in his hubris exploits the earth, and sets himself up in opposition to it. However, the earth fights back. From The Origin of the Work of Art by Martin Heidegger:
"Earth ... shatters every attempt to penetrate it. It causes every merely calculating importunity upon it to turn into a destruction. This destruction may herald itself under the appearance of mastery and of progress in the form of technical-scientific objectification of nature, but this mastery nevertheless remains an impotence of will."
Thus the present work is situated at an interface between man and nature, an uneasy, confined and claustrophobic space where the friction between these two is irreconcilable. It is a relationship of strife and struggle, there is no meeting point, they are in opposition to one another, yet they are never separated. They are essentially different from one another, yet there is this paradox that they are part of each other.
I do not make the paintings because I am preoccupied with the above ideas and concepts. Rather the paintings are a response to the emotional power that the subjects hold over me. The choice of the subjects is irrational and involuntary, they simply force themselves upon you and demand to be put into the paintings. The possible meanings of the paintings come afterward. One can theorize at length and fruitfully about meaning, but there are always aspects that will not yield to such articulation. Essentially the language of painting does not speak in words.
80 x 115 cm
Tree Long Ago
25 x 19 cm
Tree in the City
129 x 63 cm
After the Place
90 x 50 cm
129 x 60 cm
110 x 75 cm
MOUNTAINS AND SKYSCRAPERS
by Lloyd Pollak
Although the theme of ecological catastrophe dominates this entire corpus of paintings, nowhere is this doomsday scenario addressed with such unequivocal directness as in Tree Long Ago. In this strictly symmetrical, centralized and frontal Y-shaped composition, a tree stands in complete isolation against a stony mud-coloured ground and a cloudless sky. The lean, stripped-down tree is handled in a manner so simplified and stylized, that it acquires the iconic impact of traffic signage or a logo. The tubular shape of the round trunk is accentuated, so that this looks far more like a piece of lead piping, than a living thing, and in fact the tree is so generic and de-particularized that it seems to form a sign for a tree, rather than a real tree.
Entirely gray in colour, and devoid of any hint of leaf, or redemptive green, this arboreal specimen clearly subverts the conventional symbolism of the tree of life with its brace of positive associations. Rabie’s tree represents impotence and sterility, rather than the generative principle, growth, reproduction and the nurturing forces of nature. It rises upward, but never attains its true height, as its upper reaches have been brutally felled. Not only has growth been arrested, but the tree has been rendered barren and incapable of either regenerating itself, or reproducing. There it stands, its two branches uplifted in solemn warning and hopeless imprecation.
Some gaseous brown substance gathers in the sky, and creates a toxic sense of smog. As the tips of the tree’s branches move outwards, so they become drained of colour and substance, as if acid rain and a polluted atmosphere were relentlessly gnawing away at them. There is deathly finality, a terminal conclusiveness about this wan threnody on the death of nature, and by implication, that of humanity, for this is a wasteland in which nothing but stones, and the remains of the tree survive. The same tree reappears in Tree in the City where it is surrounded by corporate headquarters and office space. This image obviously aims at a wider significance, and serves as a metaphor for the sterility of modern urban life, the severance of the links, ties and bonds that once united humanity, the rupture of contact, the vanished feeling of community and the growing sense of loneliness, isolation and emotional atrophy.
Known Unknowns, the converse of Tree Long Ago, generates a sense of untrammeled boundlessness and release. This panoramic, bird’s eye view of a dense, luxuriant forest of African trees sweeps over the undulant hills and dales, stretching for miles before it disappears over the horizon line of tiered hills lined up neatly, one behind the other. All this surging verdure and growth creates a sense of a lush, primeval forest; of unspoiled nature in the raw; of a pristine wilderness left untouched by man.
However a question mark hovers over this, as yet, untamed wild. The outline of two gigantic skyscrapers superimposed over the carpet of greenery strikes an ominous note, and hints at imminent despoliation. Unreal, transparent and devoid of any material substance, volume or weight, these looming monoliths appear chimerical, rather than real, and it is as if the landscape were experiencing a premonition of its future fate. Sometimes, as here, and in Twin Peaks, the artist conjures up Edenic spaces, and appears concerned with the possibility of future devastation, and sometimes, as in Tree Long Ago, she shifts the tense to the present, and records a grim fait accompli.
Such is the case in the title painting, After the Place, where the assault upon the environment proceeds apace, and nature, in the form of cliffs, is juxtaposed with invasive architecture. A massive, slabby, windowless block of building rises up from the rocky heights it so hideously disfigures. The inference is that part of the mountain is buried beneath it, or alternatively, that the latter has been demolished to make way for this philistine town-planner’s dream. The building strikes us as a barbaric profanation, and we recoil in horror, for Rabie’s delineations of fragments of rock faces always form a shorthand for Table Mountain, prompting a glow of recognition in the viewer who bristles at any interference with this beloved landmark and symbol of our identity. Although these very partial glimpses of gorges and ravines are mere segments of a greater whole, ruthlessly taken out of context, they prove rousingly emotive, as they evoke something with which we wholeheartedly identify, something that radiates benign overtones of divine creation, and thus appears, almost sacred. Sunlight pours onto these lofty rock-faces, bathing them in a golden light so that they glow with warmth.
As in the companion pieces, Face-off and Big Face-off, what is proposed is a sustained comparison between the architecture and the mountain, both of which are given equal weight. Boldly silhouetted against the sky, they form two blocks that balance each other, but fail to coexist in harmony. Although the seams, cracks, fissures and gaps in the cliffs in Face-off form patterns clearly reminiscent of brickwork, and mirror the divisions of the floors and windows in the adjacent building, the sharp contrast between the organic and the man-made, clearly imply that mountain and architecture contest the space upon which they stand, and exist in opposition to each other.
In After the Place and Götterdämmerung, the architectural excrescences assume a smooth, sheer, planar form as featureless as a cardboard egg-box, or a polystyrene cup. A bludgeoning inflation of scale is accompanied by a stylistic nullity and lack of any expressive dimension. The architecture makes no statement about time, geography, climate, materials, the people who built it, or the people who work in, or inhabit it. The blunt, bald blocks make no effort to blend in with their environment, nor to acknowledge human tastes and needs. This is brutalism at its most brutal and pitiless.
This group of hybrid paintings, half cityscape and half landscape, treat of invasion and encroachment, and portray the mountain in the process of being devoured by ruthless urban development. Rabie’s art is an art of estrangement, and it emotes a haunting blankness and vacancy. The canvases ache with absence and loss. There is nary a glimpse of man. There are no animals, no flowers, and in most, although not all, of the works, no trees or vegetation. This is a bleak vision of an apocalyptic future in which life appears to have entirely died out, and all that is left in its wake are the craggy stone heights of the deserted mountain and the empty architectural monoliths.
Blue City’s title describes both the color, and the mood of the painting which is executed in the artist’s distinctive palette of cold, leaden, gun-metal grays and dark blues. These create a deeply depressive and intensely anti-naturalistic effect in which the time is neither day nor night, but a perpetual dusk, with Wagnerian overtones of Götterdämmerung and impending doom. In Blue City and City, a clump of tall, thin, glass and cement skyscrapers, seen from below, careen upwards toward the frame, and their soaring motion possesses a Jack-in-the-box dynamism and thrust. The two ranges of towering masses are viewed diagonally as they travel into the picture space, and meet near the centre. Both their position, one placed in front of the other, and the diagonal lines formed by the fenestration, seem to carve out a three dimensional space, but, in City, this recession is immediately denied by the flat gray at the centre of the buildings which returns the eye to two dimensions in the lower register.
Rabie’s formats and architectural totems are both tall and vertical, forcing the viewer to choose between looking at either the top of the composition, or its base, as both cannot be encompassed in a single glance. Because the viewpoint is placed high above the level of the ground, any allusion to terra firma is eliminated, and all we see is this jostling barrage of skyscrapers many of which are cut off by the frame above, below, and on both sides. Not only do we loose any frame of reference, but no vantage point invites us into the picture space, nor is there any path between the buildings to allow us to pick our way through the maze of glass, bricks and mortar. These profoundly inhospitable paintings, like the cities and structures they represent, clearly state ‘No Entry’ and ‘Keep Out’.
As the orthogonals actually meet within the picture space, rather than at infinity as they are supposed to do, they assume a potent outward-pressing momentum, so that the buildings invade the void spaces in front of them, and jump out, toward the viewer.
Rabie’s cities may be ghost-towns, but they pulse with an unnerving vitality, and the latter does not inhere to the subject matter, but proceeds from the style the artist applies to it. It is Rabie’s galvanic idiom that makes the city spring into life. The vertiginously steep skyscrapers diminish in width, as they rise in height, at a rate far more rapid, than a normal perspectival construction would allow. The distortion causes all the ascendant vertical contours of the buildings to whisk the eye from the bottom to the top of the picture, hurling us, like a projectile, into the mottled gray sky. At the same time, there is a suicidal tumble downwards towards the absent ground space between the buildings. This dive-bombing, free fall sucks the viewer into the picture space, but provides him with no support, so he is subjected to the full pressure of gravity as he hurtles down towards the earth. The orthogonals of the fenestration also conduct the eye to the centre of the picture, at the same time as they move it outwards towards the frame on either side. A whole variety of forced perspectives endow all these warring directional thrusts with an irresistible force that sends the eye spinning every which way, allowing it no rest.
The unreal, collapsing spaces; unanchored structures, and unnaturally dim light and steep shadow give the paintings uncanny Surreal appearance. After the Place is a harrowing suite of prophetic dream images that clearly predict the horrors the future holds in store. The paintings bristle with internal contradictions which render Rabie’s vision of urban space even more eerie and alienating. In City, the light fails to fall in one consistent direction. It pours onto both the buildings to left, and to right, which would be impossible in reality. The façades are strongly illuminated, whereas the mountain peaks directly above them, are illogically cast into deep shade. The sky is completely empty and untenanted, yet clouds waft across the reflective glass surfaces of the building to right. Whatever space there is between the townscape, and the mountain beyond it, dissolves in City where the peaks crown the buildings, making the painting top-heavy and imbalanced. The craggy heights become an oppressive deadweight, applying a shattering pressure to the architecture beneath them which threatens to disintegrate and bury the city in debris.
Rabie’s soaring arrays of hubristic skyscrapers seem to convey psychological repercussions, and record how the monotony and uniformity of a completely regimented, environment impoverishes experience. The cities with their almost identical buildings presuppose a race of genetically engineered clones, an acquiescent Orwellian citizenry of stupefied zombies.
Blue Façade, a tonal study in blue and gray, teeters on the brink of pure abstraction. The entire picture space is monopolized by the sides of two separate glass buildings which meet at centre. However the latter are so radically cropped, and so charged with effects of see-through, dazzle and light, that they become almost unrecognizable, turning the painting into a discombobulating brain-teaser. The steep gorges and gullies of the mountain appear in the glass cladding of the buildings, but whether these are reflected, or whether we see them through the glass, remains a mystery. In this tour de force of spatial wizardry, the problem of deciding what lies in front, and what lies behind, becomes insoluble, creating complete confusion. The viewer can no longer identify what he is looking at, and is thus deprived of all purchase on reality. After the Place establishes Janice Rabie as a highly inventive artist, who has devised an entire kit of purely personal devices and strategies to eloquently convey the complications of our emotional and visual responses to our rapidly changing environment.