“This is my daughter, Anna,” said Claudette Schreuders, by way of introduction, as the artist’s mother, infant son and his nanny, several friends and a cat looked on.
Anna was speechless, and she seemed to look straight through you, as if focused on something far off in the distance.
But that’s understandable, given that Schreuders’ family wasn’t really present at the Lux Art Institute, where Schreuders’ remarkable work is on display through July 30.
Like the others, “Anna” (2008) is a wooden sculpture. Created when her daughter was 3 years old, “Anna” is carved from Yelutang wood.
“One of the things I love about wood is the limitations of it,” Schreuders said. “You have this limited space in which to work and you put the person in there.”
Working with clay, Schreuders explained, you can be as realistic as you want. “But with wood, the wood dictates to a large degree what the thing is going to look like. It has its own energy.”
Schreuders has been working with wood since 1994, when she graduated from the University of Stellenbosch in her native South Africa. She lives in Cape Town.
With influences ranging from traditional African carved figures to the work of American artist Alice Neel, Schreuders has developed a unique style in which to explore issues of attachment and detachment, independence and interdependence, often within the same work.
“I think it’s quite valuable to work so long in one medium and really kind of master it,” Schreuders said. “It’s not that easy.”
Each piece is part of a long, drawn-out process that includes documenting her pieces with lithographs, which have also attracted attention. Several of her lithographs are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and are on display in a current exhibition there, “Impressions From South Africa, 1965 to Now.” Much of her work at the Lux, which includes four lithographs and 10 sculptures, was previously shown in her solo New York show, “Close, Close” at the Jack Shainman Gallery.
“The theme is from an American poem, ‘Close, Close,’ that I like by Elizabeth Bishop,” Schreuders said. “She describes (a couple) who are so intimate that they completely know each other; there’s an almost claustrophobic closeness that comes from domesticity.”
One of the pieces in the exhibit, titled “Close, Close,” (2010) shows a couple asleep, “close as two papers in a book that read each other” (to quote Bishop’s poem).
Another, “One” (2010), reveals a boy standing on his father’s feet, as if bonded to his parent; in “Eclipse” (2007), a mother holds a baby in front of her, and when viewed from the front, her face is no longer visible; and in “Abba” (2010), a black African nanny carries Schreuders’ small son on her back, making overt a subtext that is inevitably an aspect of any South African’s art: race.
“Those words always come up: South African, white, Apartheid,” said Schreuders, whose first language is Afrikaans. “I’m white, I’m South African, so people read a political context into whatever I do. I am conscious of that and I am aware: This is how it will be seen.”
The daughter of Dutch parents who moved to South Africa, she was relatively isolated from the country’s social and political turmoil growing up. She lived a life she characterizes as “privileged.”
“We had this idea that if things changed, and when you are a child you take this very literally, that white people would be chased into the sea,” she said. “I was always looking to see how far the sea was from Johannesburg (where she grew up). So it was very positive when (Nelson) Mandela (in the 1990s) put so much emphasis on reconciliation, which seemed an unthinkable kind of change.”
While she attended art school during the 1990s, politically oriented art was the rage, but she resisted the pressure “to tell people what the right thing is and declare some sort of moral (judgment).” She preferred to work with her own, individual story and its inevitable political ramifications.
“This (art) is about my domestic situation, and whatever, but it still reflects the realities of South African life,” Schreuders said. “(In this show) there’s one black person, and her relationship is kind of like a servant. And that’s still the reality, actually, in South Africa.”
There’s no judgment in “Abba,” no overt message. But every aspect of the work quietly invites you to consider the complexities and contradictions of the relationship between the boy and his nanny.
“It’s a relationship that is so intimate,” Schreuders said. “But also so far.”
Her most recent work, “Five,” which she just finished at the Lux, turns back to her daughter and has its own complexities.
Now 5 years old, Anna, with her open face, draws you at the same time her arms-on-the-hips stance pushes you away.
Perhaps Schreuders could revisit Anna’s progress every few years.
“I think about it,” she said. “I might do it and I might not. Time goes so fast.”