Asymmetrical Delusions: The art of Peter Mammes

Posted 2011-03-30 @ 20:58:00 In articles > features

I stop by the studio of literally-hungry young artist, Peter Mammes, for a little conversation and a lot of red wine.

There is a certain duality about Peter Mammes. Half of his work depicts, in black and white, the macabre absurdity of medical anomalies; the other is a kaleidoscope of color that examines the nature of the mathematical line, symmetry and pattern.

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I visited Peter at his apartment in Harrison Street, in the centre of Jo’burg, where, if the content of his work is anything to go by, I half-expect to be met by either the "sometimes obscure and reclusive artist" Mammes has been touted as, or a just plain deranged hermit with a collection of faces in jars. I was instead met by an exceedingly friendly young man who smells nothing like formaldehyde and who apologized profusely for the state of his home, as he picked up mould-solidified socks from the studio floor.

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I first saw Peter’s work at an exhibition at Arts on Main, which is a bit like a really snotty flea-market for the Jo’burg art-crowd. Essentially, most of the Arts on Main patrons like to mill about in their designer loafers and talk very audibly about ’neo-enlightenment South African art post William Kentridge’, or some such other nauseating bullshit. Plebs, the lot of them.

Peter’s work stands out in that setting because it has rawness, a virtuosic naiveté that is, as yet, uncorrupted by the involvement of a gallery or an agent.  Peter stands out for the same reasons his art does: he is visibly uncomfortable schmoozing with the bourgeois bohemian, and as I toggled my view between the black and white drawings up for sale and their artist, this lack of commercial representation was noticeable in both. In fact, the artist is much opposed to being told what to do and is very much against the "...rules and regulations imposed by people who believe that they have authority, and believe they can dictate what I think".

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This explains the lack of television and popular music in the studio. Instead, audiobooks on indefinite loan from the library are Peter’s company of choice while he works, along with his three tarantulas: Fred, George and Dave.

The nature of this work is such that Peter uses traditional means (painting, drawing, sculpting) to render a bizarre collage of the oddities of human existence, visually ripped from the pages of medical textbooks. Peter suggests that by limiting himself, restricting the methods and mediums of his art, he is forced to enliven his work with the humanity of his own labor and dedication. Unlike contemporary artists, such as Hirst, who use a "factory" setup for producing art, Peter believes that a labor-intensive process of creation imbues his art with something "human and real", and that makes all the difference.

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Paradise of inhibition 234,6; 2008/9, painted wood and architect’s pen

Peter has said that the works are about absurdity, about "the absurdity of society and our daily lives" and that his aim is to challenge the concept of normality. To this end, he draws on a series of images that are both disturbing and inviting - conjoined twins, deformed fetuses, early pseudo-psychiatric treatments, sketches of post-mortem procedures and anatomical diagrams of both humans and animals. His work shows his particular fascination for the aberrations of society, those perceived to be bizarre, ugly, or unacceptable.

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But as we sit on the floor of his chaotic studio finishing a bottle of red wine, I ask Peter about the theme of his work, and he replies that, mostly, it’s about rejection.

Rejection? I ask.  He explains that it’s about people who don’t quite fit in to society’s concept of normality, for whatever reason; people who are rejected from the fold because they do not meet the measurements required by the majority; people who are isolated or outcast.

This is the real juxtaposition in Peter’s work - the mathematical symmetry of our ideas of perfection and the lived reality of our imperfection, which isn’t really ugly at all.

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Organic Symmetry; Oil on wood

I look at the work again. I realize that what I’ve been attracted to the whole time, what is attractive about Peter’s art, is not the ugliness of the carnival freak-show specimens or our morbid fascination with them, but rather, the vulnerability of the strange, the bare-faced humanness exposed by their otherness. Peter’s work is incredible because it exposes the vulnerability, the essential otherness that every person’s self-awareness permits, and that has the potential to either connect or estrange human beings from one another.

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Peter’s new works will be shown at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, in the Project Room, from May 8 until July 3.


Tags . . arts on main . artist . peter mammes



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Asymmetrical Delusions: The art of Peter Mammes
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