Based in Cape Town, and represented by the SMAC gallery in Stellenbosch, Anton Karstel’s work tinkers with the perceived loyalties and presumed modalities that are strewn over the scarred socio-political landscape of South Africa. From this foundation, Karstel deals with the idea of the ‘post-‘, ghostly in his conceptual approach to historical conventions and cultural dictates, always throwing curveballs at the establishment, leaving one wondering where his loyalties lie.

As an acknowledged conceptual artist, it seems ironic that Karstel’s most recognized works are oil paintings, a traditional medium proclaimed by the vanguard to be at a critical dead-end. However, his use of painting seems apt in the context of South Africa’s art market and political scene, where many artists and galleries resort to cheap conceptual tricks in order to make a quick buck, not realizing that the consumables they create for the market are tantamount to delinquency, with the system being a form of exploitation. In keeping with the tradition of painting and the legacy it holds, Karstel builds an argument about the value of art and measure of value. Instead of falling-back on over-used gimmicks and derivatives that dominate the market today, Karstel’s subject matter is relevant and profound, manifesting meaning in much the same manner as memories are distilled in old deteriorated black and white photographs and films.

Karstel is given allowance for using the institution of oil painting on conceptual grounds, granting him access to memories that would not usually be accessible to any white male stemming from an Afrikaner heritage. He excavates the archaeology of South African tradition and transition, skillfully portraying South Africa’s often shadowy, disturbing and corrupt, historical currencies, exposing the specter of ideological and political abuse that still affects us today. Karstel performs an autopsy on South African history, constructing a site, or body that is still being navigated and negotiated. His portraits and cityscapes offer us a grotesque and alienating reminder of the all too common ritual of history repeating itself, parading as nostalgia, recalling the photographic productions of Christian Boltansky and Alfred Stieglitz.

Karstel’s paintings are physical, punching through the formal and theoretical facades of the materials he uses, based on the fact that it is ‘historically justified’ to do so, rendering the surface of the canvas a territory to be disputed. He interrogates the supposed ‘autonomy’ of the illusory picture plane, making the assumed homogeny of his subject matter apparent. This is evident in his Prime Minister series, where he renders the past leaders of the Apartheid era as eerie, almost monstrous, deteriorating apparitions.

By allowing his audience to contemplate this body, Karstel makes a point not to obliquely reference history, rather seeing it as organic and fluid, challenging the integrity of the original image and its related ideology. What was once equated with truth and power is now understood to be momentary and abstract. Ghosts abound, from Claude Monet to F.W. de Klerk, Karstel pieces together fragments of a not so wholesome colonial past that is perversely ever-present and extramundane today. He appropriates from these archived spirits their signatures, in so doing transforming his paintings into historically embodied ‘readymades’, found objects that effectively declare the impact that painting can still achieve.

Karstel’s tactile impasto paintings are both incorporeal and corporeal, his subject matter being ubiquitously present and absent in their plasticity, where appearances are certainly deceiving, evidenced by his Beach Girls series. By focusing on ideological signifiers, such as architecture, leaders, and objectified women, the fleeting and the fleeing are poeticized through his ethereal ala-prima technique, finding uncanny compromises between the past and the present through the ‘stickiness’ of the politically and historically unmentionable. One may say that this is an indictment of the represented and the repressed.

Karstel discloses the relations between mortality and morality, history and memory, thereby examining the mechanisms that construct our current sense of guilt, tolerance, anxiety and fear. The corroded hegemonies in his cool, saturated, low-key paintings sheds light on the ideological processes and power structures that make us believe what is ‘acceptable’ and ignore that which is ‘hidden’. In so doing, Karstel’s paintings, confiscated from socio-cultural burden’s and historical limitations, make departures from what has normally been regarded as either inside or outside, constantly leaving question marks where answers were once thought to exist.

Copyright © Shane de Lange 2010.

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