Raél Jero Salley: War of the Roses
Opening today at Gallery MOMO, Cape Town is War of the Roses, a solo exhibition by Raél Jero Salley.
It can be said that the history of painting is a history of flowers. Flowers in paintings are elusive—and in a way, empty—signifiers, fluctuating constantly in meaning and value. To use the cliché, what’s in a name? A rose by any other… A flower can be whatever the viewer wants it to be. The metaphor can be extended to Salley’s paintings in general, which inhabit worlds both familiar and uncanny, inspiring multiple possible imaginaries.
A woman in Victorian garb seems the subject of a withered, lost-and-found photograph, the painting, a restoration of all those forgotten-but-not-gone. She could have been a poet, or a student, or a domestic worker, or a matriarch, or a singer, or a criminal, or an intellectual. Identity and meaning reside in the unknown. Another black-and-white painting features two mustachioed men in suits. One wonders if they were lovers, or brothers, or colleagues, and what can be made legible of the monochrome orchid dripping seductively at the edge of the frame? The couple on the park bench by the rosebush, are they drawing towards each other, or pushing away? Is it longing or dismay in his face? Temptation or distrust in hers? What do we make of the monuments in the background; what structures or histories might be looming over this scene? Salley has a way of rendering these ordinary scenes and characters opaque, and revelling in that opacity, celebrating the frayed ends between what the artist creates and what the viewer interprets.
War of the Roses is not about flowers, but flowers, as Salley says, “show up.” In other words, flowers promise to thread together the otherwise disparate narratives of Salley’s paintings, to varying degrees of fruition. Ultimately, Salley’s flowers invite the viewer to attune themselves to that which is liminal, marginal, or misunderstood, crafting an experience of seeing and empathising based not on consumption, nor recognition, per se, but radical imagination.
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