“Hegel’s Salt Man” may or may not be a skeletal little man who resembles a salt shaker with pointy arms and legs. Ron Giii’s drawings and oil-stick paintings do their fair share of shaking, as well as pointing and other manifestations of gesturing.
But “Hegel’s Salt Man” is definitely the title of a wonderful survey of the artist’s 35 years of drawing, painting, writing and performance. In the excellent catalogue curator Rosemary Heather observes that “Giii’s work presents itself at the place where the invisible meets the visible.” Frontal-figurative drawings are one such meeting place, and another site is theatre and/or the theatrical. The exhibition runs the gamut from Giii’s art school drawings, in which a performative body is twisting and being twisted by geometric patterns and obstacles, through his Atomic Theatre drawings of the 1980s, and up to recent works essaying the war in Afghanistan, the political theatre of the Middle East and the 21st century in which Frankfurt School dialectics have long become a ghost in the machine of an ongoing, mind-numbing spectacle.
His proto-geometric drawing of the 1970s aside, Giii was primarily a performance artist during that decade. He was a principal player with the Kensington Arts Association, which evolved into the Centre for Experimental Arts and Communications or CEAC. He was the ringleader of a performance ensemble calling itself SHITBANDIT. This exhibition displays a considerable collection of performance-related ephemera, although performance documentation is largely missing in action. (That would constitute another fascinating exhibition.) Giii’s performances confronted rather then conventionally entertained or placated audiences. Although Giii subsequently moved away from performing with his body in the 1980s, a performative focus remains central to his drawings and paintings. So does confrontation, although it has become less aggressive and more playful.
A typical Giii drawing features a stick-like figure (an animation?) either literally negotiating geometrically defined space or centred on pure, abstract paper. Utilizing this template, Giii nevertheless achieves a considerable variety of proscenium bodies admonishing and cajoling viewers. An untitled grouping of drawings on one of the gallery’s walls showcases this versatility. Masters of ceremonies, with slight but significant facial or costume variations, form a chorus line. Benjamin and Adorno goose-step side by side. Precariously installed Afghan president Hamid Karzai is precariously balanced—his headgear could be removed or fall off at any moment. These letter-sized drawings present the figure on and against plain paper, but the background is still geometric. When Ron Gillespie became General Giii, the three vowels of his adopted name were intended to represent Iran, Iraq and Israel. That is an all-pervading and non-negotiable triangle if ever there was one.
Another key inclusion in this captivating survey is a selection of Giii’s writings, as writing has always been a core element of the artist’s practice. The writings are another example of the visible meeting the invisible or the impenetrably abstract. Ron Giii has never been afraid of oratory or anything declarative. “Hegel’s Salt Man” is a well-installed interdisciplinary exhibition by an intriguing transdisciplinary artist.