Bonita Alice: Obscured Proximities

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Bonita Alice, Diptych, 2014, Acrylic on panel, Courtesy the artist and Gallery AOP.

Text written for the exhibition brochure accompanying Bonita Alice’s solo exhibition at Gallery AOP, Johannesburg (18 April – 9 May 2015).

Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been — all that; and he — But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other (Virginia Woolf, Flush: a biography, 1933).[1]

As ordinary knotted beings, they are also always meaning-making figures that gather up those who respond to them into unpredictable kinds of “we” (Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008).[2]

A sleeping dog, reminiscent of a greyhound, is wrapped up in a golden blanket, its head resting on a black surface. The idea of sleep, and the significance we attach to it, brings into view multiple departure points. I imagine the symbolic, spiritual and psycho-analytic significance brought to dreams and dreaming. Sleep is attached not only to rest, nourishment, insight and healing but also to narratives of vulnerability, traumatic memory, mortality and loss. The idea of sleep can also be political: what does it mean to close one’s eyes, to feign sleep and the absence of consciousness? What does it mean not to see, to enable complicitous relationships to that which is not fair, just or ethical whether politically, economically, socially or environmentally? As I write about Bonita Alice’s work I view Anima (2012), a video work, by the artist Charlotte Dumas, of horses as they drift into sleep and from consciousness (they are caisson burial horses of Arlington National Cemetery in the United States).[3] Dumas films in silence, and close proximity to the animals, in the darkness and shadows of the enclosed space they inhabit at night. The video suggests points of connection with painting, its stillness, silence and play on light, darkness and shadows. I feel as I look and the distance I imagine between myself and the sleeping, shifting creature collapses, we are imaginatively, affectively intertwined.

The spatial relationships staged between the sleeping dog enclosed in Alice’s circle, and the intricate patterning behind are ones of displacement and disorientation. We cannot know, with any certainty, where we are or what we are looking at. Is this an architectural site located physically and materially in the world or is the locus of dream-worlds, fantasy and psychic projection? Through the intricate design, reminiscent of latticework, I register the material substance of the wooden panel, the artist has chosen for her ground. As I look I become conscious of the pressures embedded in vision, as a personal and subjective process of relating to ourselves and others. My looking is neither distant nor detached. I am conscious of my subjectivity as woman and as human animal. I am aware that my vision is freighted with my own historical and social relation to animals and the choices and ethical concerns that accompany these. Violence is always potentially present in vision, in how we look and then pin down, reduce, close off, and flatten out. Donna Haraway focuses critical attention on the encounters between human and non-human animals, in scientific, social, personal, economic, cultural and political life: ‘All of these are figures, and all are mundanely here, on this earth, now, asking who “we” will become when species meet’.[4]

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Bonita Alice, Diptych, 2014, Acrylic on panel, Courtesy the artist and Gallery AOP.

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Bonita Alice, ‘Beast Dead II’, 2014, Acrylic on plywood panel, Courtesy the artist and Gallery AOP.

In 1933, Virginia Woolf wrote a biography of Flush the spaniel, which belonged to the English Romantic poet Elizabeth Barratt Browning (1806-1861). Flush was reprinted in 2005 by Persephone Books, London, a publisher that focuses largely on ‘neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women’.[5] Apparently Woolf was inspired by a new edition of love letters between Elizabeth and Robert Browning, published in 1930, in which ‘the figure of the dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life’.[6]  The book, which was a commercial success, was not a critical success and Woolf herself referred to it as ‘that silly book’.[7]  But Flush has also been taken up by feminist scholars and critics who focus on its social commentary. The book tells a tale about how human animals project subjective emotions, desires, longings, frustrations and so forth onto the bodies and souls of non-human animals. It also imagines a relationship between a dog and his mistress, the bonds of possession, love and power, and hierarchies of class, and gender, which extend to the scientific-biological meanings of species, and non-human animals in domestic and social life.

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Bonita Alice, ‘In Which The Horse Plays The Straight Man’, 2014, Acrylic on plywood panel, Courtesy the artist and Gallery AOP.

In Alice’s paintings, multiple visual languages and iconographies, both familiar and strange, imagine encounters between human and non-human animals. Human hands emerge from the blankets of the dogs that rest or sleep. The hands point at subjects or objects that we cannot see or know. A figure, which appears human, but which might also be imagined as a creature of myth stretches upwards as he or she or it reveals an animal in repose. Phantasmic figures appear to merge with the substance of fabric, which veils, conceals or reveals. A white hand with exaggeratedly long fingers, ambiguously human, reaches out from a voluminous white sheet to touch the neck of a black horse. The gesture appears simultaneously tender and threatening: nothing is known, legible or explained, and we cannot see the figure to whom the hand belongs. Enclosed in the circle which has become a characteristic visual device in Alice’s work my looking is contained as if I were looking through optical devices deployed to magnify distant sites and scenes. The devices promise visibility, and proximity to that which we cannot readily see.

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Bonita Alice, ‘Draping the Horse I’, 2014, Acrylic on plywood panel, Courtesy the artist and Gallery AOP.

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Bonita Alice, ‘Draping the Horse II’, 2014, Acrylic on plywood panel, Courtesy the artist and Gallery AOP.

These paintings obscure the borders and hierarchies imagined between species, and which have been so thoroughly overturned and critiqued in the scholarly work on human and non-human animals attentive to the ethics and politics of human-animal relations. In Haraway’s work we encounter cyborgs, monkeys and apes, oncomice, and dogs: ‘In every case, the figures are at the same time creatures of imagined possibility and creatures of fierce and ordinary reality; the dimensions tangle and require response’.[8] Alice talks about the relationship between pain and beauty in her work, and its politics: ‘There’s this thing about heightening pain by rendering it in a decorative, aestheticised tone […] My underlying content is a painful one. In this exhibition we are talking about a relationship that I regard as floundering in the aftermath of a betrayal, a failed relationship with massively destructive repercussions for animals on an enormous scale […] and quite possibly, emotional repercussions for all parties. The result is an anxiety that comes from both sides’.[9]

Alice’s paintings are beautiful and she is consistently attentive to how things are constructed, crafted and made. In making these paintings, acrylic paint on wooden panel, she departs from the dust work, which similarly explored ambiguity and blurry borders between the human and its non-human others: figures I imagined as ghosts, aliens and animated objects in proximity to mountains, volcanoes, cliffs, oceans and indeterminate grounds.[10] Of her decision to explore painting Alice draws attention to how she navigates across media. She speaks of the pragmatic underpinnings of making a work but also alerts us to the ambiguity that is present not only in the human/animal figures but also in how she works with particular media, crossing processes and disciplines: ‘what’s guided me is the idea that actually very often I’m drawing when I’m painting. Keeping this in sight helps me find my way with painting. This is how an acrylic on paper work landed up in the Jerwood Drawing Prize Exhibition in 2014’.[11] She says of the earlier dust works: ‘What guided me with the dust was a linear, hard-edged way of making  forms that came from various, quite decorative traditions such as historical Japanese and Chinese printmaking, and Indian miniatures.[12]

Visiting Alice’s studio in Dalston I am able to view not only the work itself but also the traces and material culture of an artist’s process – preliminary sketches, notes and visual sources.  There is an affective charge in Alice’s practice as a whole, which resists an empirical fixing of the world, and there is a politics and an ethics to work that is neither prescriptive, didactic nor self-explanatory. We, as viewers, are invited to think more critically and more rigorously about how it is we look, and what it is we see in the entanglements of Alice’s human-animal figures in grounds that we cannot ever fully know.

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Bonita Alice, ‘Untitled’, 2014, Acrylic on plywood panel, Courtesy the artist and Gallery AOP.

[1] Woolf, V., Flush: a biography (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1933).  Available as a free e-book http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/persephone-ebooks (accessed 23 March 2015).

[2] Haraway, D.J., When Species Meet (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p.5.

[3] Charlotte Dumas: Anima and the Wildest Prairies at the Photographer’s Gallery, London, 6 February- 6 April 2015: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/charlotte-dumas-anima-and-the-widest-prairies-2 (accessed 23 March 2015).

[4] Ibid., p.5.

[5] Persephone Books: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/about-us/ (accessed 23 March 2015).

[6] Persephone Books: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/flush.html (accessed 22 March 2015).

[7] Persphone Books: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/content/persephoneforum/persephone-book-no-55-flush-by-virginia-woolf/ (accessed 23 March 2015).

[8] Haraway, D.J., When Species Meet, 2008, p.4.

[9] Interview (Bonita Alice and Yvette Greslé) 4 March 2015, London.

[10] Refer to the exhibition ‘Beast at Home at Gallery AOP, Johannesburg (6 March – 3 April 2010): http://www.artonpaper.co.za/view.asp?ItemID=39&tname=tblComponent1&oname=Exhibitions&pg=front (accessed 23 March 2015).

[11]Interview (Bonita Alice and Yvette Greslé) 4 March 2015, London. See also:

Jerwood Drawing Prize, 2014:  http://www.axisweb.org/features/news-and-views/in-focus/jerwood-drawing-prize-2014/ (accessed 23 March 2015).

[12] Interview (Bonita Alice and Yvette Greslé) 4 March 2015, London.

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