William Kentridge, Generous Conscience and Empathetic Storyteller, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art

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The figure of the storyteller is archaic, a notion made ridiculous by a modern-day skepticism so generic and hard-hearted it imagines a present unlike any other in history. Robbed of its function in the West and relegated to the margins of modernity, the notion of the storyteller survives largely as a relic, a nostalgic archetype, a dead skeleton uncovered explicitly for the purposes of anthropologists to pick over. Or so it would seem.

In contemporary art, stories and those who tell them have tended toward the American multiculturalist variety: recovering select histories for the purposes of collective edification or uplift. Harkening back to an uncomplicated, premodern period totally unlike our own, these stories speak of men and giants, of a time made up almost exclusively of victims and oppressors. These tales are recovered by marginalized groups for the purposes of "reappropriating" their own histories, and revisit a largely idealized, essentialist past, a time segregated from modern, messy reality by wishful thinking and blissful (and often willful) ignorance.

Largely unclaimed, mature themes like contingency, guilt and doubt?the stuff of the disappointed, robust humanism of Francisco Goya and Leon Golub, among others?remain mostly unexamined by the artists of our time. This raises certain important questions, among them: Is it possible today to make art that speaks deeply to individual and collective experience? How can one tell a singular story in an age of large-scale human disasters like Rwanda and Kosovo? Which story among the million, billion histories should storytellers privilege and why?

Our age boasts few narrators of wide-ranging ambition, artists who make individual art works while keeping one eye peeled on history's ever-changing human context. Among this reduced company is William Kentridge, South Africa's best known artist, a draftsman who is also a filmmaker, writer, theater director and something of a throwback to the age of Sartre, Giacometti and Andre Malraux. Fashioner of a unique and generously empathetic brand of drawn and moving images, Kentridge has spent the last decade making artworks that folks around the world immediately recognize as profound meditations on la condition humaine.

Kentridge's first U.S. retrospective, on view currently at Soho's New Museum of Contemporary Art, presents powerfully poetic works and elegiac sights and sounds, all animated by a humanist spirit many have short-sightedly relegated to the historical dustbin. Drawn largely from the artist's unapologetic engagement with certain canonical works of Western culture (among them the art of Euripides, Goethe, Hogarth, Max Beckmann and Beckett) and confrontation with the nightmare of his own time, Kentridge imbues his vision with the force of an assertive if peculiarly elliptical activism. Consisting of 11 of his animated films, more than 60 drawings, two new sculptural installations, plus videos of theater and opera productions he has designed and scripted, the current exhibition goes a long way toward presenting the work of this accomplished artist to an American audience largely unfamiliar with it or him.

His first crude animated films, which he called "Drawings for Projections," were begun in 1989 and inaugurated a simple but laborious process. Proceeding by repeatedly altering single, large-scale charcoal drawings on paper and filming each stage of alteration, Kentridge arrived at something he still refers to today as "stone-age filmmaking." He learned how to make complex films by recording marks, erasures and redrawings, virtually reinventing the medium of the moving image from the bottom up, and eventually producing challenging, accessible works that are, as he puts it, "informed by self-evident principles of construction."

Rather than the thousands of cels used in traditional animation, Kentridge has settled on using between 20 and 60 works on paper that he exhibits along with his films. By themselves, the drawings prove little more than the collectible residue of the artist's filmic metamorphoses, though a few charcoals on view at the New Museum (some of them outlined in red and blue pastels) manage to stake out an independent, graphically powerful presence. Kentridge's films, on the other hand?which he scores with poignant contemporary and classical music?are nothing less than a tour de force of striking black-and-white imagery. Short, silent ditties laden with ambiguous significance, they surrealistically layer personal, esthetic and political memory over one another, arriving at something that is part creepy Terry Gilliam animation, part dramatic Sergei Eisenstein epic.

The South African's best-known low-tech movies, lasting between 3 and 8 minutes, tell the story of two largely invented, glancingly autobiographical antiheroes: Soho Eckstein, a jowly real-estate and mining mogul in a pinstripe suit (a character drawn from a family photograph of his grandfather), and Felix Teitlebaum, a dreamy, ruminative poet who seduces Eckstein's wife and is emblematically pictured naked whether in or out of doors. Pitted against each other like cartoon alter egos in a constantly morphing landscape (behind all of Kentridge's landscapes is the idea of nature as a "place of social contestation"), Kentridge's main characters develop beyond the flaccid stereotypes of comic strip sagas like Maus to acquire, like real human beings, evolving and often conflicting traits.

Beginning with Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris and progressing through Felix In Exile to History of the Main Complaint and Stereoscope, Kentridge's cycle of eight films featuring Eckstein and Teitlebaum moves through the characters' amorous conflict, alienation and general heartbreak amidst a devastated background of rocky scrub brush, enigmatic billboards, food queues, crowded mine shafts, power lines and ominous office buildings. The landscape itself throws up other figures: crowds erupt literally out of nowhere, megaphones blast mute propaganda, lovers meet and cuddle amidst the groundswell of placards and demonstrations. As the series progresses, Eckstein's and Teitlebaum's struggle recedes, giving way to an evocative wretchedness, poverty and violence visualized most poignantly by the remorseful Eckstein, a sort of symbolic stand-in for the self-satisfied, politically ambivalent bourgeoisie.

Kentridge's work illuminates our understanding of how apartheid and authoritarian systems like it affect those who occupy positions of relative power, and provides a roiling, profound, ultimately sympathetic commentary on how people go about their everyday lives, oblivious to the worst possible fractures in society. Avoiding, in the words of critic Lynne Cooke, "both the spectacularization of memory endemic to much art that deals with political issues and, equally, the sentimentality that bedevils most exercises in redemption," Kentridge plows forward with a vision that permits his characters?and by extension the real folks they symbolize?to change their minds, grow beyond their former selves, suffer pangs of guilt caused by acts of omission or commission. (No scene illustrates this better than the figure of Soho Eckstein beneath two large banners of text that read: "GIVE" and "FORGIVE.")

"I am interested in a political art," Kentridge has stated with a philosopher's aplomb, "that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay." Emerging from what was arguably the world's emblematic political cause of the 1980s, his vision as an artist matured just as South Africa headed toward civil strife, passed through conflict, then sought to consolidate its own complex and troublesome democratic process.

Of present-day South Africa, Kentridge has said: "One of the reasons it's not of great interest anymore is that the stories are much more complicated. The easy heroes and villains have melted into each other." For that we need more than the hubbub of the daily press. We need careful, contemplative artists like Kentridge, generous consciences, empathetic storytellers?artists capable of keeping in mind the sage advice of Philo of Alexandria: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

"William Kentridge," through Sept. 16 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway (betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), 219-1222.

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