Wim Botha: Still Life With Discontent 

Through Aug. 4

North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Through Jan. 2020

21c Museum Hotel, Durham

South Africa’s Wim Botha is a both-and artist. Acknowledging the fundamental multiplicity of all things, his works are clear and ambiguous at once, open to not just varied but contradictory interpretations. His first solo museum exhibition in the United States is split between the North Carolina Museum of Art, where it will stay until August 4, and 21c Museum Hotel, where it will be all year. It consists of sculpture, Botha’s primary medium, as well as installations, drawings, and paintings from several ongoing—even obsessive—series from throughout his career. 

Drawing upon religion and myth as well as Renaissance and Baroque art history, his most significant repeated subjects include the Pietà (the Virgin Mary holding Jesus’s dead body), Laocoön (the Trojan priest who was consumed, along with his sons, by giant serpents), and Leda (the princess raped by the god Zeus, who had taken the form of a swan). Botha focuses on the most famous of the many depictions of the Pietà and Laocoön: Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the statue of Laocoön and his sons at the Vatican. 

From an art-historical perspective, these sculptures are among the ultimate expressions of agony and injustice. Botha spent time in Rome painstakingly recording their dimensions and configurations, which he treats as a physical proxy for the emotions they have expressed so persistently for centuries. He then replicates these subjects in works that range from small drawings to large sculptures in painted bronze, carved polystyrene, and wood. Instead of trying to advance his knowledge of these works down a line of logical inquiry, Botha is testing them, probing the material to discover exactly which lines hold the power—which configurations of marks convey suffering, righteousness, or sorrow.

Both museums afford an opportunity to get inside Botha’s head as he asks these questions. At 21c, on the wall next to the monumental bronze “Prism 10 [Dead Laocoön],” there’s an array of sixteen small, abstract drawings of the Laocoön in different styles, from tangled scribbles and Cubist constructions to minimal, ruled lines in a draughtsman’s hand. Looking between the sculpture and the drawings, one can imagine Botha asking himself: “If I remove this line, or change its relationship to that line, is it still the Laocoön?” 

Meanwhile, the “Untitled (Leda)” series at the NCMA consists of more than thirty red figures in oil on paper. Hung at irregular intervals in a horizontal line around three walls of the gallery, they are seen in linear order, like frames in a length of film. It gives the impression that we’re seeing Leda as a single image and as many at once. 

These two works are key to Botha’s serial process. Applying analytical rigor and humanist curiosity, he dismantles his subjects to examine their components while revisiting them over time, allowing different facets to emerge and recede. However, he makes no claim for seriality as a path toward comprehensive knowledge of his subjects. If anything, the sustained inquiry only leads to more questions, and these myths become less knowable and clear as time passes. 

Does the Pietà express the agony of the loss of one’s child or the ecstasy of the Resurrection? Botha says it’s about both, embracing the fundamental unknowability of these objects, stories, and symbols, swarmed as they are by associations, values, histories, and contexts. 

Take Leda’s story, which seems straightforward enough—she was raped and impregnated by Zeus. But it’s a fiction with no definitive telling or stable narrative. Sometimes it’s a seduction; sometimes there’s consent; sometimes it’s an assault; sometimes it’s both Zeus and Leda’s husband who impregnate her. In his depictions, Michelangelo made the coupling look gentle and holy; François Boucher chose a kind of realism; Fernando Botero made Leda appear to endure an assault through dissociation. 

In an artist’s talk at 21c, Botha offered an alternative take, reading Leda as empowered through her beauty and desirability and Zeus as debased and fallen, having taken the form of an animal. The point is that readings accumulate as myths are retold through changing eras. Eventually, all the readings are right—or none are, because the story will outlive you.

So what are these stories for exactly, and why create artwork after artwork out of them? Botha asserts that, because even our most lasting and important cultural narratives play out in ways we can’t know over time, they point us back to what we can know—ourselves. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” ties knowledge to subjective being, which gives Botha something to return to throughout his serial inquiry. It also leads into the most both-and series of works in the exhibition.

Botha’s “Solipsis” series, featured at both exhibit venues, consists of large installations of disembodied wings carved from polystyrene and pointed forms constructed from many white fluorescent light tubes. The title is a logical extension of the Cartesian idea that one’s consciousness proves one’s existence, but not the existence of anything else in the world. The ethereal installations look like half-disappeared angels or ghosts, arriving or fleeing or loitering, appearing out of or dissipating into light. Botha treats not knowing as our condition rather than our problem, and so his work  asks “What is my condition?” again and again.