Critical Review: How does William Kentridge deal with Postmodernism and Modernism?


Kentridge’s work covers many formats, from charcoal drawings, and film animations to complex video installations and multimedia performances, in which he explores painful histories, humanism and science. Here, I will examine his work in the light of its transition through and beyond postmodernism, from 1989 until present and reflect on his interpretation of culture in his art.


After studying drama, art and politics in Johannesburg and Paris, Kentridge joined the South African art resistance movement against apartheid in the 80’s, when postmodernism was at its height in the western world. Kentridge’s fascination with the narrative of the triptych lead him to animation and the possibility of expressing time, space, memory and change on paper. He established his charcoal drawings at the heart of his animation films and his process was simple – make a mark, film it, then make another, erase some and film it again until movement appeared. [1] His work during the early 90’s gained international recognition as he reflected on his memories of apartheid in Johannesburg and its sporadic breakdown in an anti-apartheid culture.

Between 1989 and 1996, his animation films were thematically aligned with postmodernism’s skepticism of metanarratives and depicted South African society’s fragmentation, diversity and multiplicity under apartheid. He questioned metaphysical abstracts, such as freedom, justice and truth, through pathos [2] within a framework similar to Plato’s dialogue structures. [3] Visual dialogues between fictitious characters allowed him to comment on thorny issues, so that over time their conversations reflected his personal search for meaning within the socio-political milieu of South Africa.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s retrospective on postmodernism, dated its end as early as 1990 in western culture. [4] However, postmodernism lasted longer in South Africa until apartheid was abolished in 1994 and it continued to influence a post anti-apartheid culture thereafter. This culture was tainted by a new influence that tolerated a return to metaphysics, on postmodern terms of skepticism, as was evident in Kentridge’s approach. Jean Francois Lyotard in his appendix to The Postmodern Condition, explained the relationship between Postmodernism and Modernism as follows, ‘Where modern art presents the unpresentable as a missing content within a beautiful form, postmodern art, exemplified by James Joyce, puts forward the unpresentable by forgoing beautiful form itself. Furthermore, a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern, for postmodernism is not modernism as its end, but in its nascent state, that is, at the moment it attempts to present the unpresentable.’ [5] It explains why Kentridge’s work starts out as being postmodern, but as soon as he appropriates meaning to it, it transforms to modernism, only to collapse under the weight of the meta-narrative and revert back to being postmodern once again.

3     KENTRIDGE AND THE MODERN ROMANTIC AESTHETIC (late 90’s to early 2000’s)

The next group of animation films between 1996 until 2001, were made as Web 1 became commercialized, the technology inspired Dot-com boom erupted and Wikipedia was launched based on the concept that users can add content to the internet. [6] It was therefore no surprise that he became interested in digital communication during this time. By 2002, Web 2 was all over most of the world and it significantly influenced a digital culture. Alan Kirby believed that it was at this point that a new cultural aesthetic developed. [7] It was in this climate that Kentridge made two films in 2003 and both were childlike and playful, focused on himself at the center of the story. In Tide Table, it is about Kentridge the young boy’s relationship with his older self, Soho, who is awkward and out of place in his suit on the beach, while reading the Tide Tables. [8] In Journey to the Moon, Kentridge is again the main performer, but this time in live-film, comically playing games by walking backwards, speeding up or slowing down time and looking through miniature gadgets at things, searching even the night skies, as if looking for God, but seemingly disconnected from reality, because he does not see his wife standing right beside him. [9] A sense of feebleness and profound loss are experienced in his self-centeredness, amidst technology in a world where God is absent. These films embraced a romantic nostalgia for his childhood expressed haphazardly, perceived as honest and truthful, similar to the style of YouTube videos.

Just like The Enlightenment paradoxically helped to create a new wave of emotionalism, which came to be known as Romanticism (early 1800’s), a similar mood now followed postmodernism. There was a spread of earnestness and a turn towards endless narrative. Kirby noted that the top 10 grossing films worldwide, between 1999 and 2007, were increasingly more than half children stories and he coined the new mood digimodernism. It was characterized by haphazardness, evanescence, anonymity and multiple authorship and its traits were earnestness, endlessness and the apparently real – as seen in Disney children films. [10]


Similarly to Romanticism of the early 1800’s, which favoured the revival not of one style, but of potentially unlimited styles through the rediscovery of old forms previously neglected or scorned upon, more and more, contemporary artists now began to pursue revivals after postmodernism. Likewise, in 2010 Kentridge returned to old modern themes of colonialism, born under The Enlightenment, and the absurdity of politics, in the production of two operas, The Magic Flute and The Nose. He also returned to old forms used by the Russian Constructivists, by making paper cut out figures and combining it with old footage and live film as combines on film. This was further elaborated on in Refuse the Hour performance and the Dancing with Dada operetta. [11]

Together with science historian, Peter Galison, they commented on Science as an authoritative modern theory. In collaboration, they performed The Refusal of Time [11], at Documenta (13). ‘It was about our fascination with the abstract notion of time, embodied in the material world,’ said Galison. [12] The installation incorporated multimedia i.e. old and new film footage, animation, books, machines, music and theater into a chaotic collage of the meaninglessness of modern life. [13] This shift towards science could be compared to Phillip Pullman’s Dark Material series, where he justified his children stories by the science of quantum mechanics.

Mary Holland in her recent book, Succeeding Postmodernism, described our western culture as challenged by narcissism and self-reflexive solipsism. Kentridge’s work now also turned progressively towards a kind of self-reflection-theme between the passive-authoritarian self and the child-adult self in his performances and operettas.

Kentridge developed his later works increasingly out of the tension that existed between modernism and postmodernism, between the over abundance of meaning and the absolute lack of meaning that prevailed in our western culture. Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen referred to it as the metamodern culture – constantly oscillating between modern enthusiasm and postmodern irony. [14]


Kentridge’s growing international recognition, especially amongst art students, reflects his ability to  interpret contemporary western culture into honest and playful personal experiences, which are easy to relate to. This was especially true of his encounter with Romanticism which was authentic and delicately balanced between what was yearned for and what was present in the prevailing culture, at the time.

However, from his lecture series, it is obvious that he has a strong interest in philosophical theories because he relates his work to so many diverse theories on culture (from metamodernism, digimodernism to altermodernism, the latter describing a synthesis between modernism and post colonialism, otherness and elsewheres – all favourite themes of his) and one wonders whether it is theory that drives his art.

It is my contention that culture is significant in driving art, but that alone it is not enough. Kentridge’s authenticity ultimately remains the most important contributor to his success as an artist.


  1. SFMOMA. 2009. William Kentridge on his process [ONLINE] Available at: [Assessed 7 November 2014]
  2. Kunst Halle Krems. 2013. Exhibition: Deep feelings from Antiquity to the present. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 November 14].
  3. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2013. Plato. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 August 2014].
  4. Docx, E. 2011. Postmodernism is dead. Prospect magazine. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 8 October 2014]
  5. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. Postmodernism. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 November 14].
  6. Wikipedia. 2014. History of the World Wide Web. [ONLINE] Available at: [Assessed 1 November 14].
  7. Kirby, A. Digimodernism: How new technologies dismantle the postmodern and reconfigure our culture. Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2009. p2,
  8. SFMOMA. 2009. William Kentridge on his film Tide Tables. [ONLINE] Available at: [Assessed 7 November 2014]
  9. Jeu de Paume. Exhibition: William Kentridge Five Themes, 29 June – 5 September 2010.
  10. Kirby, A. Digimodernism: How new technologies dismantle the postmodern and reconfigure our culture. Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2009. p3.
  11. Jeu de Paume. Exhibition: William Kentridge Five Themes, 29 June – 5 September 2010.
  12. Breidbach, A, 2011. Refuse the Hour. Artsouthafrica, p38-41.
  13. Koerner, M. 2012. Death, Time, Soup: a Conversation with William Kentridge and Peter Galison. The New York Review of Books. p3.
  14. Vermeulen, T., van den Akker, R. 2010. Notes on Metamodernism. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, p1, p4, p14


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Exhibitions : Claude Jamnet, Roger Ballen, Joburg Artfair

Below are listed exhibitions I visited earlier in the year, since May 2014.

Claude Jamnet (French artist who lived many years in SA, Japan and Kenia. She now lives and works in Italy)

Claude Jamnet’s exhibition was about her going back to visit old themes of Christianity and finding new ways of saying. For example – She does not paint the crucifixion, but rather the baby Jesus, which is to her a symbol of hope.

Jamnet_baby Jesus_oil on paper

Jamnet_baby Jesus_oil on paper

Her rendering of Pieta is very different to that of arthistory. She takes the figure of Christ out and shifts the focus to the sacrifice. Nothing is now left that they can take. He gave all of his blood.

Jamnet_Pieta_oil on paper on canvas, 140 x 135cm

Jamnet_Pieta_2007, oil on paper on canvas, 140 x 135cm

I also like the way she painted St Christopher, who was apparently asked by a child to take him across heavy water. Here the man knows the burden that is placed upon him, while the child is unaware of it.

Jamnet_The Crossing (St Christoper), oil on paper on canvas, 2014, 136 x 137cm

Jamnet_The Crossing (St Christoper), oil on paper on canvas, 2014, 136 x 137cm

To me, Claude is a good example of someone who joins her art with her own life experience, in this case by commenting on Christianity, by placing her subject matter in her own context as a woman and a mother. She highlights an authentic fresh look in a contemporary and creative way.

Her painting texture is course (looks like gesso with scratched marks in it). She paints oil on paper instead of on canvas which I think is quite unusual. It was probably this observation which led me to try it out in my own combines.

Roger Ballen (American born Photographer-Artist, living in SA since 1980’s)

He says quite explicitly that the focus of his photographs is to find out who he is. He says that he thrives on finding the dark or hidden side of himself. He likes it when the pictures make you think that something mysterious is going on, which you can’t express in words. He adds that his approach is formalistic regarding composition. However, he says that everything in the photograph have meaning, even the background, which is often for him the most important part. The pictures evolve with drawings which is then photographed together with his installations. He says that he does not use Photoshop or any other software to manipulate his photo’s.

Roger Ballen, Take off

Roger Ballen, Take off

Roger Ballen, Threat, 90 x 90cm

Roger Ballen, Threat, 90 x 90cm

Malicious 90 x 90cm Photoprint on Hahnemuhle

Malicious 90 x 90cm Photoprint on Hahnemuhle

He says he lives and breathes his art 24/7 and that it evolved slowly over time into its current form. His use of line together with photo reality, gives it an imaginative dimension that is in sharp contrast to the real objects. A Combine of sorts. Also his fine attention to background texture and form made me appreciate the importance of it.

Joburg Artfair

Our annual artfair can be quite overwhelming with so many artworks on display, but I have learned to quickly scan the halls and find the special ones. I list those here.

This year’s winner – Portia Zvavahera:

Winner of Joburg Artfair Portia Zvavahera

Winner of Joburg Artfair Portia Zvavahera

Alimi Adewale’s collage painting about – changes of New Lagos which seems to the unobservable eye, still to be the same.

Displacement by Alimi Adewale

Displacement by Alimi Adewale

I really liked the small aquatint below. I wonder if it has anything to do with the redistribution of land in our country.

Healing of land by Lorenzo Nassimbeni, hard ground etching, spitbite aquatint and chine colle, ed 10

Healing of land by Lorenzo Nassimbeni, hard ground etching, spitbite aquatint and chine colle, ed 10

In comparison to last year, there was a lot of William Kentridge’s work on display including one of his films -Second-hand Reading , which was constructed from the successive filming of drawings on the pages of old books; a second-hand reading of those books. Both the film and the book are both about narrative— they start at the beginning and eventually get to the end— but also acknowledge repetition, inconsistency and illogicality as part of their material.

I also liked some of the quotes pasted to his linocut tree below – “The head and the load are the troubles of the neck.” – “News of death is never untrue.” They sound like things Alice in Wonderland would have said.

If you have an eye by W Kentridge_2014

If you have an eye by W Kentridge_2014

Marion Boehm’s cloth and paper collage paintings were also very interesting, especially the patterns made out of words in the background.

Marion Boehm





The silk “drawing” of Mandy Coppes-Martin was outstanding to me.

Mandy Coppes-Martin, Being of consequence, 200 x 80cm, 2014, raw dyed silk from domestic silk worm "Bombyx Mori"

Mandy Coppes-Martin, Being of consequence, 200 x 80cm, 2014, raw dyed silk from domestic silk worm “Bombyx Mori”

And so was Benon Lutaaya’s paper collage, below.

Not yet there by Benon Lutaaya

Not yet there by Benon Lutaaya

I should also mention the wonderful puppets on display by the Handspring Puppet company – the creators of War Horse. I enjoyed looking at them close-up and seeing the intricate mechanisms and how they create illusions (e.g. skin – a stocking pulled over pieces of wood).

By Handspring puppet company

By Handspring puppet company

The artworks listed here have all been very inspirational to my art practice.





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Assignment 5 – Abstract Expressionism : Submission and Tutor Feedback


I’m submitting my last two paintings:

August 2014, Oil, ink, encaustic transfer on paper, 57 x 76 cm

Nineveh, Oil, ink, pastel, encaustic transfer on paper, 57 x 76 cm


Abstract based on Woman playing the lute

Abstract based on Woman playing the lute, oil and charcoal on paper, 57 x 76cm

My exercises are all quite experimental, but here are four of the better ones:

Provincial Park Kwazulu Natal, 25 x 40cm, oil and collage on wood

Rhinoceros, oil and collage on wood, used palette knife, 25 x 40cm

Smiley Face Emoticon, oil, image transfer and encaustic wax on canvas, 37 x 42cm

Smiley Face Emoticon, oil, image transfer and encaustic wax on canvas, 37 x 42cm

Charcoal and transfer on encaustic wax

Charcoal and transfer on encaustic wax, 15 x 20cm

Texture, taking out, scraping, gesture drawing, 40 x 50cm

Texture, taking out, scraping, gesture drawing, 40 x 50cm

Reflection on my own art practice:

My art practice seems to be an ongoing experiment of techniques, but I feel that it is beginning to pay off and that I am finding my own voice. The graphic line as part of painting has always been important to me and I must therefore still learn etching techniques.

I see my future art practice unfolding as combines on paper, canvas and ceramics, where the graphic line will be prominent. My compositions will continue to be a search for simplistic forms because I think great beauty can be found in simplicity.



Student name Charleen Brunke Student number  
Course/Module Concepts 2 Assignment number 5

Overall Comments

Here I am seeing an artist well placed to embark on level 3 and to pursue your own research agenda. You display a fine sensitivity to materials and an engagement with why you are making the work which is both personal and social and which also looks to artists around you for insight. As you are living in South Africa your frame of reference for visual culture research is understandably not Eurocentric and I find this simply highlights the limitations of the American / Japanese / European art markets and their hold on the visibility of artists despite the rather patronizingly labelled ‘post colonial’ sensibilities that supposedly influence it. This was an exciting submission – well done.

 Feedback on assignment Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity

 conflict / pistorius

 This is a lovely work about a theme which it is difficult to make sense of and you have had the sense not to attempt trite resolution but simply laid out the elements and used simple formal means such as palette and composition to create a coherence of form without readily deconstructable ‘answers’. In particular I like the way you have drawn attention to pistorius’s private space, his reflection, his inner thoughts, and also the idea that he is a news item, one of many addressing human’s incapability of living in harmony and peace. Its great Charleen. The use of geometric shapes is elegant and understated and the scraffito and layering is crisp and purposeful – not ‘arty’ and vague.

abstracts from borrowed compositions

 Looking at these digitally, they both look very successful. You have captured the composition well and created, particularly in the second one, a sense of the dutch light which is so important in these paintings.

2 rhino’s

 I find these both a little flat. The first is a bit illustrative and I can’t quite see what you are aiming for. It feels like a study or an experiment to understand the materials. The relationships are too simple for someone who has just carried out such an interesting compositional experiment. In the second the colours seem a bit coarse in comparison to other things, I can’t see the inter relationships working so well. Again I wonder if a few more versions would lead you to wherever you need to go with this idea. These are great for a sketchbook – a note to remember that this might pop up in a later work or you might come back to it?


good for you for getting a result on what can be a fairly unprepossessing brief. You are really getting to grips with encaustic and of course it’s fine at this level to make your own decisions about scale. The central composition is more obvious here as you were set a task about signs which makes people think about central placing. I still think you could be a little bit more adventurous at times with scale and composition though.


Texture, taking out, scraping, gesture drawing, 40 x 50cm

Texture, taking out, scraping, gesture drawing, 40 x 50cm

This looks like a great piece, and here the composition is offset slightly to the right. In particular I think the left hand area shows that you can manage quite complex layers and gives the work much more depth and sophistication than, say, the blindfolded rhino.

girl with ripples

 This is an interesting technique and I agree with you that you are finding a voice and a direction of travel which is perfect at level 2.

Learning Logs or Blogs / Critical essays Context

You write very well and clearly about your own goals and reflections on your journey. You are quick to pick up on learning opportunities and your practice is reflexive and ambitious. Your drawing facility is high, but you have pushed yourself to experiment with materials quite radically and this has resulted in a wide range of outcomes which you have honed in this assignment. The Pistorius piece and the hodgkinesque abstract seem to show a way forward for you with complex compositions, variations of scale and a weaving of layers and ideas.

Critical review

Your critical review is well thought out and passionately argued. It is probably more about an artist moving along the cultural tide and being almost a litmus paper to history and circumstance. I think you can remove the sentence at the beginning about not having time to go into Kentridge and post modernism. You can simply replace that with one line encapsulating Kentridge’s work and saying that you will examine this in the light of the transition through and beyond post modernism. This is an ideal critical review as it very contemporary, but also personal and relevant to your own developing practice. Well done.


You are very experimental and lively artist Charleen and it is clear that you have a good studio methodology that works ideas through and builds on previous understanding. It is important to have this as you approach your final courses, rather than making individual finished pieces – the work starts to build into a pathway of investigation, exploration and research.

Suggested viewing/reading Context

 Michael Andrews

Christopher Orr

Geraldine Swayne

Rembrandt etchings

Anselm Kiefer (look critically here – I don’t know if you will like it but he shares some themes and it might be interesting)

 Pointers for the next assignment

 You are currently the only student of mine that submits digitally Charleen and I seem incapable of handling it. I think this time I was waiting for your critical review before I marked the work but I think I got the wrong end of the stick. You should expect your assignment to be marked within two weeks of me receiving it. I understand that you are submitting a 6th assignment with your parallel project in it, and that is fine. Please note that it really does not have to be about the seasons – just make a body of work that excites you. 

Tutor name: Emma Drye
Date 16/11/2014
Next assignment due





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Exercise – Combining gestural painting with image transfers

Museum curator, Keith Wells, said that for Rauschenberg ‘combines’ was a way of seeing what was happening in the world at that point in time when he made these pieces – a history lesson of sorts, by placing the mechanically produced photo image next to its antithesis, the gestural mark.

In my ‘combine’, I tried to create the dark month of August 2014 as my moment in history. During the first week of August we heard the closing arguments of the Oscar Pistorius trial, while wars began to escalate throughout the month with ungodly hatred between the Abrahamic faiths in the Middle East between the Muslims, Jews and Christians. It fills me with horror to see the violence that is caused by the slow trickle of unresolved bitterness over so many centuries in the Middle East. I was surprised to learn that the modern city of Mosul, the place where ISIS persecuted minority groups in northern Iran, stands on the west bank of the Tigris River, opposite the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh on the east bank – the very land God forgave after they repented their sins.  But still an eye for an eye seems to come more easily than mercy for us . Not even our justice system can operate on forgiveness, which places Oscar at the center of the same debacle.

My process:

Ideas about style formed in my head after consulting the works of Whistler, Doig and Diebenkorn for their abstract compositions and surfaces. It was the latter who said that before he could start painting, he needed to violate the clean white surface. I thought this approach was also appropriate here. I chose paper, because I liked the effects Diebenkorn and Doig achieved with their aquatints.

Based on many small preliminary sketches, I explored chiaroscuro and the overlaying of abstract and realistic compositions. I began by sketching a first layer in charcoal with no regard for mistakes or dust. I then considered which transfer technique would give me the most desirable surface. I decided on encaustic wax transfer which gives a weathered look with a smooth and thin integrated surface with the rest of the painting.

Hereafter, I applied many thin layers of oil paint with a scraper, taking care not to spoil good marks underneath. I reworked highlights in pastel and ink until the final outcome:

August 2014, Oil, ink, encaustic transfer on paper, 57 x 76 cm

Nineveh, Oil, ink, encaustic transfer on paper, 57 x 76 cm


I think composition, context and surfaces are important in this painting. If these three things work, then the painting should make the viewer stop to look more carefully. I hope my composition has its own voice. In this case I think it is about balancing that flimsy bubble we carry. By juxtaposing the raw drawing of Oscar with the transferred photo’s and symbols a certain discord is created. The same holds for transparent and opaque layers, light and dark.

I am glad that I have resolved my use of line to a certain extent in this painting. I feel in a much better place compared to the beginning of the course, because more techniques are now at my disposal to express myself better.

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Sketchbook – Abstract gestural painting

Vermeer_Young woman standing at the Virginal

Vermeer_Young woman standing at the Virginal

Woman standing at the virginal

Woman standing at the virginal

After using thick textures in my previous rhino encaustic, I now want to return to thin transparent layers of paint. This morning I looked at some of Vermeer’s compositions and saw how solidly he anchored them in abstract designs. It is almost Mondrian like in style. I made a skeleton sketch (on the right) to see his lines and shapes better of Woman standing at the Virginal.

Process: I decided to use a limited colour palette, to apply thin layers of oil paint and encaustics with large scrapers on paper and to keep the composition simplistic. But almost from the word ‘go’, it was hard to keep to the design because my scraper was so large. Intuitively I responded to my mark-making, but the composition became more and more complex. I decided not to use my creamy coloured encaustic paint as a top layer, because it would have been too thick and opaque.

Abstract of Young Girl standing at the Virginal

Abstract based on Young Girl standing at the Virginal, 85 x 61cm, oil on paper.

I then chose another Vermeer and also interpreted its supporting abstract structure.



Sketch - Woman playing the lute

Sketch – Woman playing the lute


Here, I used more or less the same process, but tried my best to keep to the layout of the composition and not to overwork the surface and lose my initial marks.

Abstract based on Woman playing the lute

Abstract based on Woman playing the lute


My process has changed to be more intuitive and I think it shows in the outcome. I like the very thin washes in my last painting, but I also want to experiment with layers of transparent white encaustic (which is on order from the UK). Unfortunately my home-made zinc white oil paint mixed with natural beeswax is very opaque and not suitable.

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Sketchbook – Texture

Here, I want to experiment with texture. Below, I used a palette knife and newspaper collage.

Provincial Park Kwazulu Natal, 25 x 40cm, oil and collage on wood

Rhinoceros, 25 x 40cm, oil and collage on wood

Below, I used encaustic wax to create texture.

Rhino with blindfold, 42 x 52cm, encaustics and transfer.

Rhino with blindfold, 42 x 52cm, encaustics and transfer.


Looking back at Rhinoceros, it looks tight in comparison to Rhino with blindfold. I had much less control over the medium and my critical self don’t like it very much, but I can see the potential this mediumhas to offer in terms of texture and abstract gestural painting.


Untitled, (Hyena) 8/20, 12 x 15cm, etching

Untitled, (Hyena) 8/20, 12 x 15cm, etching

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Project: Your own work

The methodology required for ‘painting in your own style’:

  1. Choose A1 sheet of paper, board or canvas
  2. Select an everyday symbol familiar to all of us, e.g. a road sign
  3. Paint the design by merging the colour with the ground.
  4. Add into the surface of the paint newspaper collage or coloured tissue and encaustic wax.
  5. Use gestural marks and textures
  6. Bear in mind the way Jasper Johns treated symbols, but make this painting your own style.
Smiley face 1st appearance

Smiley face 1st appearance

How to create meaning through a familiar symbol, like Jasper Johns? I think the most familiar symbol to most of us nowadays is the ‘Smiley Face’ emoticon that we attach so easily to our mobile texts.

I dug around the internet to find out about the history of Smiley Face and stumbled upon Jon Savage’s insights. He suggests that Smiley face has travelled far from its early 1960s origins, changing like a constantly mutating virus, from mood enhancer for the American public after the war in Vietnam and the shooting of president Kennedy to the early-70s to late-80s as acid house culture fad and millennial text option and even becoming serial killer signature of the US Happy Gang and finally settling as ubiquitous emoticon, suggesting various moods from confused to secret-telling,

My process:

  1. Smiley face on blackHere I’m thinking of Marlene Dumas’ use of colours; sickly lemony yellow when feelings are tainted. Is this little yellow fellow, the messenger of our emotions, also tainted? Can we trust his seal on hundreds of million’s of mobile texts?  In the image on the left, Smiley shines infantile like, sweetly and open faced out of the fashionably black space around him. This is how I want to portray him, oscillating between heaven and hell.
  2. Prep work in my sketchbook: I used a molding paste for gestural texture and painted the first layer of the face in dark shades of crimson, viridian and prussian. I then overlaid it with tints of lemon yellow. For the background, I did the opposite, working from light to dark.  Here I was thinking about Smiley’s power base, and used a collage of houses densely packed on top of each other to illustrate it. I scattered small pictures of windows ablaze with light on top of the dark as a metaphor for the mobile messages that is accompanied by Smiley.

    Miley Face Emoticon, 29 x 22cm, collage and oil on canvas

    Smiley Face Emoticon, 29 x 22cm, collage and oil on canvas

  3.  The above collage needed to be integrated better, so I decided to transfer images instead onto an encaustic wax surface. I therefor restricted texture to the surface of the face. The resultant surface of the whole painting is now smooth and glossy.

    Smiley Face Emoticon, oil, image transfer and encaustic wax on canvas, 37 x 42cm

    Smiley Face Emoticon, oil, image transfer and encaustic wax on canvas, 37 x 42cm

4. Reflection:

I must admit my reluctance in having to paint a sign, but I am surprised by how much meaning could be unlocked by simply applying a critical eye. It was also rewarding to put my previous experiments on collage and image transfers into a workable outcome and finally aligning it with meaning.

Here, my style is completely different from Jasper Johns’ course textured style, which is somewhat intentional, but hopefully I have likewise wrung every bit of meaning out of Smiley Face, as he had out of the flag. I am quite happy with the outcome, despite the smaller than the required A1 size. I simply would not have managed regulating the temperature of a greater amount of encaustic wax on a larger canvas.



The Guardian. 2009. A design for life. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 23 July 14].





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