Inside the Artist's Studio

Inside the Artist’s Studio |Storm Janse van Rensburg


Storm Janse van Rensburg at the Redcross Hospital Auction, South Africa, September 2011.

Storm Janse van Rensburg is a South African curator and Senior Curator of the Goodman Gallery group currently based in Cape Town (CT), South Africa.  Van Rensburg began his curatorial career straight out of the University of South Africa in 1995.  Until 1999, he served as assistant curator at the Market Theatre Galleries in Johannesburg. It’s important to note that the Market Theatre was founded in 1976 and operated as an independent, non-racial theatre during the apartheid regime.

Later the same year he found himself at the KwaZulu Natal Society of Arts (KZNSA) Gallery in Durban where he was offered his first curatorial position.  During those six years, he established the Young Artists Project, a stepping block for young artists and a program of national significance.  The KZNSA was founded  nearly 108 years ago as a platform where artists could discuss, exhibit and market their work.  The gallery has gone through major transformation over the years and currently is the province’s premier contemporary art gallery.

Since 2009, he holds the position of the Senior Curator at the Goodman Gallery Group. Van  Rensburg has been with the gallery since 2007 where he previously held the curatorial position at Goodman Gallery Cape while establishing the CT branch. The Goodman Gallery’s website notes that “the gallery has a long history in South African art.  It was established by Linda Goodman (now Givon) in 1966 and, from the outset, supported and encouraged artists to exhibit despite the strictures of apartheid.  It was involved in the seminal Art Against Apartheid exhibition in 1985 and held shows that spoke out against the repressive apartheid regime. The gallery is home to forty artists including visual art luminaries such as William Kentridge, Kendell Geers and David Goldblatt.”

Van Rensburg for many years has been the face of the Goodman Gallery at the Armory Show; Art Dubai; Art Basel Miami Beach; Art Basel Switzerland; Paris Photo; and at the Joburg Art fair. He has worked closely with artists Mikhael Subotzky, Hasan & Husain Essop, Sue Williamson, Hank Willis Thomas, Kudzanai Chiurai, David Goldblatt, Mikhalene Thomas, Moshekwa langa, Ghada Amer, Reza Aramesh, Kader Attia, Nontsikeleelo Veleko and many others, and has curated numerous exhibitions.

Storm Janse van Rensburg is an absolute gentleman and a multifaceted individual with a marvelous art past and an inspiring future, as he will soon venture into the art world independently. It’s my absolute pleasure to present him today.

Georgia Kotretsos:  What role has the studio visit played in your professional life as it has evolved over the passed decade?  Did the different positions you’ve held as a curator define the quality and frequency of your visits? 

Storm Janse van Rensburg: The studio visit is an important aspect of what I do, in fact what any gallerist or curator does. It is literally at the coal face. A couple of things also intersect at this point. It is a moment to see and talk about ideas, to see the progress of an artist’s project, see developments from one visit to the next. It is a moment for suggestions, resolving problems, practical and conceptual. It is a dialogue that I think is really essential to being a practicing curator.

Cat asleep, studio of William Kentridge, Johannesburg. February 2011.

It is not simply a moment to ‘chew the fat’ with an artist. It is about a trust relationship too. I am also careful during a studio visit that my feedback is not to guide or pressure artists into following a particular direction. It is simply coming in with an open mind, to engage with what is in front of you. And, if there are absences, to articulate them.

Studio practice is often a solitary practice, with very little engagement from outsiders, and it is valuable to have someone from the outside coming in, with a different perspective. I see my role as a mediator between the artist and public. I thus need to have as much information as possible, which the intimacy of the studio visit often provides.

I do two kinds of studio visits: with artists who are represented by the gallery and who are working towards exhibitions. I see this type of visit also as an information-gathering exercise. To understand in depth what the intention of the artist is. Also to understand technical issues, like how we are going to manage to get a three ton sculpture into our goodslift. In some cases, artists also “test” ideas with me. And I can think about how I am going to present the work, not only physically when it gets installed, but also what strategies we can use for its larger public mediation.

The second kind of studio visit I do is with artists that we have an interest in working with in the future, or whom we are approached by. This is more exploratory, and open, with perhaps less direct feedback on what is being made.

Art “happens” twice. Once in the studio, and a second time when it is presented for the first time in a public space. It is thrilling to witness the making of a work and then the transition to its public incarnation. I find this to be the most exciting aspect of my job. To be part of this miraculous and interesting process.

GK: Is the studio visit still an essential part of a curator’s practice? And if so how does it inform one’s own curatorial work?

SJvR: As long as artists have studios, then yes, it is essential. That said, I consider it a privilege to be invited by an artist to do a studio visit. I always feel special, and I am kind of thrilled by my special access. I will never take it for granted. And I am also careful how I conduct myself. It is always from a vantage point of respect and sensitivity, as is what happens inside the four walls of the studio. The process of an artist is a fragile process.

Robin Rhode, construction site of his new studio, Berlin. June 2011.

It is not always possible to visit an artist’s studio before a show. It is unfortunately limited to geographical access. But when I travel to other cities or countries, I make a point of engaging with artists and asking for studio visits. Invariably they are happy to open up their spaces, and engage. It is a way of learning for me. It’s wonderful, exhilarating research.

GK:  Is the joy hidden in discovering the art or when it presents itself to you?  Are you responsible for any precious art findings you’d like to share with me?

SJvR: I don’t think I have ever “discovered” any artist through a studio visit. I have discovered great things, but it was there before me, made or thought of by someone else, so I will never claim to have found the next best thing. I have merely assisted someone’s talent, and found ways to bring it to the public’s attention.

GK:  You’ve curated and dealt works by the most prominent South African artists of the post-Apartheid era in South Africa and abroad.  Your professional career started at that particular historical turning point; could you sum up for our readers the speed at which South African has grown in the arts since 1994? 

SJvR: The one-paragraph version? South African art pre-1994 focused on the Apartheid meta-narrative, and was bound and defined by it (and that includes the strong resistance art movement). Immediate post democracy, a kind of crisis erupted – a fracturing, which led to searches of new meanings and narratives, a kind of return to the self, and exploration of identity. “Who am I, where do I fit in?” This in turn led to interrogations into the politics of representation. Right now I think a turn has been made towards less direct interest in identity politics, although South African art is still concerned with the political. It maintains a critical edge.

GK:  What would you consider as the highlight of your career so far, and what has been your low point?  Have you made mistakes, or did everything fall into place at the right time?

SJvR: I had many highlights and many lows. Too many to mention, and maybe unfair to single anyone out! But a recent highlight is the David Goldblatt exhibition at Goodman Gallery Cape Town. We curated a show for the first time focused on his portraiture, including a series of 15 portraits never shown before. To have worked with such an esteemed and wonderful man such as David has been a privilege that I will always treasure.

I have never regretted any decisions I have made in terms of my career. I have not made that many. It has been a solid 16 years with only three jobs. I sometime regret not moving independently sooner. However, I believe that there is a time and place for certain things to happen.

GK:  What’s your experience of the art market?  Has it affected you as a curator?  Did you ever find yourself torn between the artistic value and the market value of a work, and if yes, which path did you eventually pick?

SJvR: I never thought I would be in the commercial art world. But the phone rang five years ago and Linda Givon, then the owner of Goodman Gallery, invited me to join the team to set up the gallery in Cape Town. I couldn’t resist. It was the only opportunity at that stage that gave me the incredible opportunity to work with South Africa’s foremost artists, in an international context.

I also recognized that career opportunities in the public sector, museums, and NGOs were limited. I made the transition with the mantra that Jane Corkin, a Canadian dealer, taught me: “You don’t sell art, you merely transfer your enthusiasm for an artwork to another person.”

I do think it has shaped me – perhaps there is less space in the commercial world for the happy mistake, for the more transient and ephemeral, which is something that I miss.

What I do appreciate about the commercial gallery is that it is based on a very simple concept. It is about relationships, long term relationships. It is about ongoing conversations and deepening conversations with a couple of artists, over decades. It is about ongoing conversations and deepening conversations with a couple of collectors, over decades. This is an aspect that I really appreciate. That you, as a dealer, mature and grow with your client base and the artists that you represent. Over this time you get to know idiosyncrasies, quirks, and mature with the people you love and work with.

I am at a kind of a crossroads now – where I am taking a short sabbatical to reassess and rethink my next move. It is not determined yet, and I think for the first time in my life I’m pushing the pause button. I need a studio. Where I can reflect and contemplate.

GK:  I find your last statement fascinating: “I need a studio.”  What do you need a studio for? 

SJvR: I need a studio, as I see it, as a space that allows reflection, and working. It is also a working space, where you make things with your hands. But ultimately I think it allows artists a space for contemplation. It’s not home, living space, nor is it an office space. It’s a place for ideas, dreaming, thinking. So, perhaps that is what attracts me to the idea of a studio.

GK:  2012 will find you as an independent curator, after a long period under the wings of the Goodman Gallery, where you shined.  Will you have to redefine your artistic identity again as an independent professional?  How do you proceed with all the goodness you carry on your shoulders?

SJvR: It is kind of scary, to move outside of the institution, the safety and routine. But I have been dreaming of it for a long time. I think the next six months will be an opportunity to reflect more than to do. It is a process. Perhaps I’ll move back to the commercial world soon, but it is too early to say. I am deeply connected to South African art and artists, and also contemporary art from Africa and the Middle East. I really want to use the next six months to contemplate and reflect. Take a little time to think about the next step, and not to just fall into the next available opportunity. It will take some discipline, as I have become used to the adrenaline and the action. To be all-consumed. In a way I think I have defined myself for such a long time by working hard, and I look forward to some respite before I dive in again. But I also know that I have too much energy to sit around for too long.

Hank Willis Thomas and Storm Janse van Rensburg in New York. March 2011.

And, that’s a wrap!

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