By D. Scot Miller
It takes a lot to get your head around William Kentridge. His nebulous existence in the world of modern art makes him a slippery figure, able to exist between things we can name. Though he is an internationally known South African artist who works in etches, collages, sculptures, and performance (SFMOMA recently presented his rendition of Monteverdi's opera The Return of Ulysses), he is best known for his "cartoons."
As on view in the current exhibition "William Kentridge: Five Themes," Kentridge's animated drawings are sublime, provocative, and mesmerizing. He films a charcoal drawing, and by making slight changes using erasures for light and depth and then repeating the process, he tells profound stories about oppression, deterioration, and social justice — in less than 10 minutes. He later shows the drawings with the films as finished pieces. His mastery of drawing is magical. It can cloud judgment. We see William Kentridge; we do to not see William Kentridge.
William Kentridge: Five Themes (Yale University Press, 264 pages, $50), the monograph accompanying the current SFMOMA exhibit, suggests the breadth of Kentridge's contributions — from opera set design to printmaking — and the depth of his explorations. Versed in opera, Kentridge centers much of his work on the form's classic themes but updates, twists, and transforms them to speak of his native South Africa and current social conditions. Editor Mark Rosenthal mixes Kentridge's commentary, plates, sketches, and photos with writers' explorations of his process and purpose. Not quite a microscope, the result is more like a pair of tweezers, bringing the reader-viewer closer to someone who loves the word erasure.