City & Country

New York Times, Art in Review
Friday, February 13, 2004
By Holland Cotter

City and Country

Axis, which opened in 1997, is dedicated to contemporary and traditional art of South Africa. And that the gallery has been able to offer a full schedule of substantial exhibitions, introducing a steady stream of artists to New York, is evidence of how rich in creativity that country is. In this show of 10 photographers, five are making local debuts. The work ranges from politically inflected images to panoramic landscapes, often mixing the two, and gives a good sense of the direction art, and South Africa itself, have been taking since apartheid ended in 1994.

Graeme Williams's shot of a "pedestrians crossing" street sign pierced by a bullet hole, from his "Inner City" series, lies within the social documentary style. Jo Ractliffe's scroll-like "Vlakplas: 2 June 1999 (drive-by shooting)" moves that genre into the Conceptual realm. The pictures, taken with a toy camera and displayed as a linked strip, seem to be of a somewhat overgrown rural farm. They actually show a prison camp notorious for its brutality under apartheid, which here becomes an emblem of evil camouflaged by ordinariness.

Stephen Hobb's images of Johannesburg skyscrapers, warped as if seen in a funhouse mirror, have the look of abstract painting but also suggest an urban fabric under serious stress. Since 1994 much of the inner city's white population has moved out, leaving modernist buildings that once served as signs of prosperity either empty or as homes to the urban poor.

In two moody pictures by Minnette Vari, a gargoyle-like creature - the artist herself in an elaborate prosthesis - crouches on a rooftop watching the sun rise over a city now considered by many to be hostile terrain. Yet the same city appears in Brent Stirton's "Portrait of Steven Cohen: Chandelier" as a prettily twinkling skyline behind the well-known South African performance artist, posed draped in lights, a kind of bright angel to Ms. Vari's dark angel.

Brenton Maart, who is working on a public art campaign about AIDS prevention in the rural province of Mpumalanga, contributes five pictures of hardscrabble countryside where poverty and global technology meet. I very much look forward to a solo show of his work. The landscape is placidly empty in a photograph of politically contested territory by Paul Weinberg. Alain Proust's shots of national parkland have the unearthly glow of 19th-century American painting. In Kevin James's distant shot of a lightening storm over Cape Town, nature and culture spectacularly complement each other, providing a gorgeous conclusion to a complex, tip-of-the-iceberg show.