Choose your point of view or just go with the flower
Raél Jero Salley explores the tension between permanence and evanescence in new MoMo show
Raél Jero Salley is both an artist and an educator. He heads the department of art history, theory and criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore; before this, the painter-professor lectured at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. As a teacher, Salley says he tries “to make juxtapositions between things that seem like they don’t go together”, reaching for those “Aha!” moments when “students begin to see the links between one thing and another”.
The example he gives is the unusual pairing of the pyramids at Giza and the World Trade Center (WTC) in Chicago. I’d love to be a student in Salley’s class comparing these phenomena. If the pyramids in Egypt represent the survival of iconic structures through the ages, the WTC project stands for appropriation, unfulfilled visions of grandeur and architectural ambition turning to dust. In the 1980s there was a dream of a 760m skyscraper (that was never constructed), and then in the 1990s the city’s art deco-era Merchandise Mart building was redubbed the World Trade Center Chicago (the name never took hold). Since 2001, the overriding association with the words “world trade centre” is the collapse of the twin towers in New York.
The tension between permanence and evanescence is a productive one for artists seeking to capture the ephemeral moment, the fleeting image or the whimsical idea in a durable art work. In War of the Roses (at Gallery MoMo in Johannesburg until December 13), Salley compounds this by making flowers the conceptual link between his paintings. Flowers are established symbols of passing beauty, but they also have an ambiguous art-historical function: for Salley, they are “elusive – and in a way, empty – signifiers, fluctuating constantly in meaning and value ... a flower can be whatever the viewer wants it to be”, which suits Salley’s reluctance to impose a particular meaning or interpretation upon any of his works. ..