Art Review: John Lombardo (17 July to 27 July 2012)

John Lombardo’s exhibition at ArtEC, Jump!, ran from 17 to 27 July 2012.

Lombardo’s exhibition focuses on the girls of the Joe Slovo settlement in Port Elizabeth. But location is not important here, as the works are read easily enough as a broad commentary of poor and marginalized South African children.

It is difficult to separate the art from the activities that support it. Lombardo is an American artist who runs an art program for children who do not have access to art. He divides his time between South Africa and the US.

In this context, it is easy to appreciate and understand the emotional connection Lombardo has for his subjects, and he does a good enough job of translating it to the viewer.

The exhibition consists of large collages, clearly based on photographic works. They are figurative, bold and iconic. The figures are uniformly faceless but it is hard to tell whether this was an artistic decision, or simply because the faces were too complex to render in the medium.

The choice of medium itself is interesting enough. Traditional collages, constructed out of newspapers and magazines, are rare these days, and so it is refreshing but only because it is relatively deftly executed. It avoids looking hackneyed and amateurish, and succeeds in transforming what would otherwise be rather bland images. The medium flattens the image completely, and this is reinforced by the flat and neutral backgrounds, but, at the same time, it activates the surface, lending it movement and dynamism.

The images are all of girls in mid-jump through skips or other schoolyard activities. They are poses and scenes that are familiar enough to every South African’s visual repertoire. And yet, the use of a rather playful and low-brow medium transforms that imagery and demand that the viewer looks at them with fresh eyes.

The execution does seem sometime ham-handed and amateurish, but that is easy to forgive because it speaks to the exhibition’s message. Here, the medium and the execution and the subject matter all blend together as one cohesive whole. It is naive and simple. It is not over-intellectual but neither is it trite or merely decorative. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, it is also inescapable that a comparison is drawn from these works to religious iconography. It is directly implied by the flattened spaces occupied by central, dominant figures in a moment of pure joy or play, which is not that far from depictions of religious and spiritual ecstasy.

And that message is communicated beautifully. This is an exhibition well worth seeing.

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Once again, thanks must go to Nadine for all the groundwork.