Cobus van Bosch  

From The Sunday Independent
September 13 1998

Drain-covers open an ignored underbelly

Lloyd Pollack

Cobus van Bosch’s extraordinarily accomplished debut exhibition displays a highly individual vision whose worth was confirmed by myriad red stickers. The artist’s unconventional enterprise is to take drain-covers and the lids of fire, gas and water hydrants - objects so humble and degraded they rarely register on the mind - and through dextrous manipulation transform them into objects of sculptural and painterly beauty. These assert a challenging presence in the pristine white spaces of the galleries.

The covers are of course, not real. Cobus fashions replicas by taking thin sheets of lead, laying them over the covers and then beating them with a rubber mallet to gain the imprint. He then coats them in dark sang de boeuf (ox-blood) metal primers before finally lacquering them. Thereby these unsightly battered objects, clotted with filth, are refashioned into delectably tactile objets d’art - suave sleek, glossy and seductive.

Whether placed on wall or floor, each cover is elevated to an icon of urban life tat testifies to the history of the city and its inhabitants. Signs of wear and tear abound. Generations of footsteps have eroded their surfaces and endowed them with the evocative richness of an archaeological relic.

The cover is part of gutter and street: it is the sealed entry to urban life’s ignored underbelly the cloacal conduits that flush away sewage, garbage and muck. Because of their lowly disregarded status as part of the pavement, which we tread underfoot and where street people make their homes, Cobus equates covers with a vagrant he knows.

To stress the rapport between what many consider “the dregs of humanity” and the covers, he fills them with computer-manipulated photographic images of the gaunt, bearded, disheveled vagrant. The cover thus becomes jail, cage and cell out of which the outcast gazes at you, creating a sense of confrontation, challenge and guilt.

Van Bosch never reproduces reality: his covers are composites, combining insignia and inscriptions from a variety of covers; just as the inset image takes multiple forms. These include artfully distorted photos; oil paint on board and large-scale oil paintings, photographed, miniaturized and reproduced on the scratched-away reverse side of mirrors.

The works vary greatly in scale and complexity, ranging from small slab-like covers to far more grand, intricate works, where little apertures simulate gazing through a peep-hole into an alien, unknown order of existence. That reverses the pampered, bourgeois comfort of the gallery-goer.

The smaller the aperture, the more tantalising the effect, for the holes often only vouchsafe us tiny, nigh unidentifiable glimpses of features and limbs: fragments of a reality we are forced to reconstruct imaginatively. The vagrant is often hallowed by “quotes” of details from old masters, like Grunewald’s Isenheim altar-piece, which endow him with a Christ-like sanctity. References to Goya’s Dos de Mayo establish the vagrant as martyr; allusions to Bosch’s Prado Garden of Earthly Delights phrase add accusations against the selfish, greedily acquisitive society that condemns vagrants to vagrancy. Emblems of male authority - embossed mayoral crests, armorials, crowns and inscriptions - point a finger at the oppressive, patriarchal status quo.

Some covers stand on their own, others form series. Thus in Cover One, a suite of seven works, the artist proclaims his identification with the vagrant by portraying himself as a beaming, radiantly healthy child slowly degenerating into his alter ego - the ageing outcast.

The most emotionally overwhelming work of all is Cover 29-34, a series of eight tall, oblong covers hung on the largest wall to form a monumentally grandiose, heroic memorial to the countless dead and anonymous homeless, conceived in pointed antithesis to monuments that commemorate dubious great men like Rhodes and Nationalist prime ministers.

An artist of major stature has arrived! Never shall I see the streetscape in the unheeding way I did before, for Cobus has permanently changed my way of apprehending reality. More than that you cannot ask of art.