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An exhibition of dark, framed shards of blackened boards with embossed geometric features, pays homage to the very gallery in which it is shown. The artworks are inky, somewhat monumental, with torn edges and strata of deep meaning.

This is the way artist Rhett Martyn registers the gallery in his exhibition the Rembrandt Fractal. And it includes abstract renderings of the encroaching city, a place of soot-stained walls with random textures - a palimpsest of dubious origins.

First known as the Market Gallery, later christened the Rembrandt Van Rijn Gallery in honour of a tobacco empire, the place on the upper level of the Market Theatre is a haunted house of extraordinary ghosts.

These days the gallery is named the Barney Simon Gallery after the theatre’s founding artistic director after whom the adjoining small theatre is named. But going back in time, from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s it was the dream of every South African artist to exhibit there.

Wolf Weinek, Paul Stopforth and Michael Goldberg started the gallery in 1977, at a time when emotions were still raw after the Soweto Riots. But what gave the place its sense of importance was the generally subversive air as plays got banned, plainclothes policemen lurked about and black performers expressed their anger to a multiracial audience.

It was antiapartheid culture’s finest moment.

And then, almost two decades later the same noble gallery would sustain itself by becoming a branding exercise for a packet of cigarettes.

But that has been a part of the survival of the building that, after all, started life as a fresh produce market. Things have been named and renamed there, for the benefit of commerce, vanity and history.

Artist and curator Stephen Hobbs took the gallery to new heights in the 1990s bringing the conceptual age to a place that had, previously, been dishing up a diet of protest art. There were triumphs and failures. In circa 1995 an entire exhibition of photographs by Jo Ractliffe, suspended from the ceiling in glass frames, had plummeted to the floor and the pile of broken glass was hastily incorporated into a new conceptual reality for the show.

Other strange and “conceptual” things had occurred. Sometime in the mid-1980s artist John Nankin had suspended a light over a pool of mercury, which had to be removed from the gallery. If my memory serves me correctly, a metallurgical expert attending a play proclaimed that toxic fumes would eventually poison the audience.

Artist Martyn is aware of the multiple ironies and histories of the location since he grew up visiting the space, scrutinising it while dreaming of exhibiting there.

His artist’s statement recognises the more kind aspect of the gallery’s neo-colonial architecture: “Through this series of artworks I have used as a formal device, the geometric qualities embodied in the Edwardian architecture of the gallery which is characterised by elaborate steel girders, barrel vault ceilings and leadlight glass windows. 

“I have tried to take into consideration how these works may act as historical registers or documents that record and interpret the decades of modification, change and transformation, occurring in the structural components of the building.”     

More practically, he says, the works “consist of folded lines, of folded paper. Quite often an arch is repeated and this references the space.” The ornamental arch in question was found late one night in 1975, buried in a wall, when the collective of thespian hippies was improvising the restoration of its newly found theatre home. 

“The idea is that theses works are kind of microcosms of the geometry of the space,” Martyn says. “But there are other layers to it. The reference to Rembrandt itself is also a duality. I always associate tobacco companies and corporations with some kind of nefarious quality. In the artworks there’s something foreboding. It looks like tar.”

In his statement Martyn writes, “I have made layered works, reflecting tar congested urbanity while also speaking to the tradition of impasto and chiaroscuro embodied in Rembrandt’s paintings. This conceptual and historical coupling of the work to the space lends yet another fractalized component to the exhibition.”

The darkness also kindles images of the city at night, through which Martyn has often driven home from his studio at August House, in Doornfontein. 

“I have worked in the city for the last three years, and so my artworks will often reference the kind of soot you’ll get under a bridge where you see people camping out for the night, burning stuff to keep warm and to make food.

“One can talk about (ancient cities), like Jerusalem. But this is palimpsest that is happening on a much faster scale.”

In other words, as people have made their marks on this not-so-ancient city, so the artist is making his mark on this ever-changing gallery’s walls.

The exhibition culminates in a huge, dramatic video work of a great and romantic waterfall cascading from the gallery roof. It’s like a breath of fresh air after a tar-drenched drive through the city streets. 

The Rembrandt Fractal runs at the Barney Simon Gallery in the Market Theatre Complex, Newtown until 27 August 2017

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