Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 21 January 2014
Category: Features Comments View Comments


Artists Pete and Elaine Woodbridge have joined forces to put together an exhibition of artworks that use quirky, humorous monkey and sheep characters, as well as vintage photography from orphaned works, to examine how we view ourselves, and our place in the world.

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey is a sheep- and monkey-themed exhibition of pop artworks, by husband-and-wife team Pete and Elaine Woodbridge, that is currently on display at The d'Vine Art Room, a small exhibition space in Heritage Square in Cape Town that's directly behind the historic grape vine that grows in the square and dates back to around 1771. (The vine is very likely the oldest fruit-bearing vine in the Southern Hemisphere and therefore worthy of a visit in its own right if you are interested in wine or botany).

Pete is a caricature artist and illustrator and has worked in both the film animation and comic book industries. He also contributed to the recent vinyl-toy customisation show at ToiToy. He and Elaine run the independent art studio Studio Woo. Elaine is a very experienced image retoucher who rescues the original image from faded, torn, and water-stained family photos for grateful clients and has a large collection of vintage photographs, postcards, and orphaned slides.

Monkey Series
Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: Mini-Monkey Portraits

Pete's "Monkey Portraits" form a huge part of the exhibition and are available as "Old World Monkey Portraits" (which includes the examples in the photograph below), monkey posters, and "Mini-Monkey Portraits" (which includes the examples in the photograph above).

The Monkey Portraits series comprises digital artworks of anthropomorphic monkeys, each very distinct and quite fascinating. You can see how Pete's background in caricature art has been put to good use. The characters have designations, such as "school bus operator", "macro economics professor", "vacuum cleaner repair man", "oxygen therapy technician", and, my favourite, "large animal veterinarian", and half the fun is trying to determine what the monkey's profession is without reading the artwork's title.

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: Old World Monkey Portraits

I asked Pete what I thought would be a simple question: why monkeys? His response, however, was detailed and quite profound:

"As a caricature artist, I get so much enjoyment out of drawing people quickly. Over the years I have seen the many connections between each individual that I've drawn, their faces, personalities, and character. This has somehow led me to draw imaginary old world monkeys and great apes. I have always been fascinated that our primate relatives share so much with us and am excited by their agile bodies and beautiful plumage. I've also been disappointed that the theory of evolution and natural selection is misunderstood, due to it not been commonly taught at schools, as this prevents us from feeling affinity with them. Their glowing eyes appeal to us to speculate about their inner worlds and our connections with them. One of the questions I am often asked when drawing caricatures is 'Do you do this for a living?', and the answers is YES! Damn it! So the idea of giving the monkeys professions was a way to convey each individual's life choice, and a play on how others stereotype you based on your profession rather than the number of fleas you have or whether you like bananas."

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: Mini-Monkey Portraits

I asked Pete to tell me more about when he first started the monkey project and what he originally had in mind - was it just to create colourful portraits or did they emerge while he was trying to do something else?.

"My main idea was to do some kind of portrait type exhibition or project creating imaginary characters," says Pete. "The ideas wobbled around in my head for a few months. It was pretty much instinctive, that I got hooked on to the monkey idea, as most of my earlier work, consisted of fury creatures, almost monkey like. I started sketching ideas out early 2013. My approach to illustrating the monkeys was also slightly different to my poster images (less line work, more painterly)."

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: Mini-Monkey Portraits

There are about 20 characters in the exhibition so I was keen to know how many Pete has actually completed. He says he had designed roughly 55 portraits before he started to colour the finals and he had 18 picture frames to fill so it was a big challenge to narrow the characters down.

He eventually completed 24 images and chose the ones he liked the most for the exhibition but he has subsequently designed a few more and has roughly 80 characters - "I say roughly 'coz it might be 88 by tomorrow," Pete says.
Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: Old World Monkey Portraits

This is the kind of project that seems well suited to be ongoing as you can never run out of ideas for new job designations and character designs and it's something that, much like Alex Hamilton's Cast & Crew series of stencilled pop art, could be added to indefinitely.

I asked Pete if this would be the case and, since I had the opportunity, whether we could expect to see a "hitman" and a "robotics factory floor manager" in future (yes, and yes). Pete said that the project is definitely ongoing and that his plan is to continue with the portraits and eventually publish. He is aiming for about 200 designs before he gets to that, however.

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town

Migration Series
Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: Migration Series

The Migration Series is a beautiful collection of large prints featuring vintage photography of the cityscapes of iconic cities, such as London, Paris, Florence, New York, and Stockholm, with a subtle twist: giant monkeys - whose imposing, yet playful and non-threatening, forms loom large against the skyline - roam across the horizon on a migratory path along with hot-air balloons, which cast impressive shadows on the landscape.

I asked Pete to tell me more about the quirky series.

"The Migration Series was a collaboration between Elaine and I," he says. "Elaine has a massive collection of orphaned slides. We chatted a lot about combining illustration with orphaned vintage slides. One of the ideas was for me to illustrate some of the exhibit characters in images with people from the 1960s and up to the 1970s. After seeing the city scenes, it became clear we were going to work with cityscapes.

"When I started the rough ideas, I wanted give a feeling of movement and passing through, which led to the idea of migration. I didn't want to make the monkeys threatening at all, more in the distant and slightly curious. Elaine did all the photo retouching and styling."

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: Migration Series

The vintage photography that forms the core of the Migration Series is, as Pete mentioned, thanks to a large collection of vintage slides that Elaine has acquired over the years. I asked her to tell me about her collection as the possibilities for what it might hold - and what can be done with it, especially in light of her restoration and retouching abilities - seem quite magical.

"I started my collection of vintage slides at the end of 1999 so have been collecting for 13 to 14 years. They come to me by word of mouth, or second hand dealers. I've also advertised," Elaine says. "They're all collected in South Africa and date from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Mostly they are family travel snapshots that record a time and culture that is gone, but is still woven deeply into our psyche and our material world, which is why I think they are so fascinating.

"On a deeper level I am touching on concepts of beauty and loss, time and memory," she says. "I like slides because of the awesome quality of Kodachrome and because it's far easier to recover something good from a slide than a print. There is also a sense of discovery of hidden treasures when I go to the light table with a magnifier - that small object that has been lying in a dusty tray for 50 years may contain a whole world and I love discovering the gems.

"The orphaned thing is a legal term regarding copyright but they are truly orphans. The slides have been abandoned by families who are no longer interested in them whether for practical or personal reasons. They either dump them and don't care what happens further or they seek me out and are very happy that someone will take care of them. All collectors hope for great discoveries and I've made a couple of 'mild ones', such as a collection from the Congo during the war in the early 1960s and a collection of rare domestic pics of a family that have really grown on me as some of the most wonderful vernacular photos I've ever seen. These are my next two projects. Most of what I have, I still have to view. I work in batches, to view on the light table, project if necessary, scan and restore in Photoshop - eliminating at every stage so that I'm left with my best ones. The choice is very personal. I also catalogue everything, which is how we could pull out particular kinds of images to work with for the exhibition."

Sheep Trophies
Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town

The Sheep Trophies series, which is by Elaine, is a very eye-catching collection of small black sheep heads mounted on wooden blocks with proclamations such as "misfit", "unique", "Bohemian", or "maverick" written underneath each one. They're awards, yet something doesn't quite sit right when you look at them due to the black-sheep connotation and the choice of words you can find underneath, which evoke strong emotions.

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town

I asked Elaine why she choose sheep, and more about the collection:

"The sheep I first loved were the Cheviot breed that I encountered in the north of Scotland. I went to North Lands Creative Glass - a glass school in a remote coastal village - and the Cheviot was in the fields all around. They were very different to South African sheep and caught my eye immediately. It's a beautiful but quite harsh place. The weather eats up castles and the sea carves cliffs but the sheep are out there all the time - real survivors, with solid bodies and thick fur. They were also very sensitive creatures; it takes one ages to get close enough to take a photo. The wild bunnies were easier! Those sheep also have beautiful faces with big bony foreheads that reminded me of a bull terrier but with lovely large, dark eyes.

"It was quite challenging being at the art school so I went out for solo walks to gather my thoughts quite often and I watched the sheep in the fields," Elaine says. "Something about their nature grabbed me. I made a sheep head at the school by casting molten glass in a pressed sand mold - that was the first one - and I left it behind. When I came back to Cape Town I sculpted the smaller heads and at the same time asked Pete to 'make me a sheep' - which was when he painted the sheep on canvas that is at the exhibition [the painting entitled Odd Sheep]. At the time, the availability of black casting glass was new, so it all came together when I made the trophies.

"I asked a lot of people about the idea of being a black sheep and I found that many, many people say that they are a black sheep - in the family, at work, in society or wherever. Almost everybody relates to the idea. Then I noticed that although it is a negative thing in traditional and religious texts, people actually admire the person who doesn't fit in, and are actually proud of not fitting in. It's part of our individualist culture. Not fitting in, being different has a lot of positive ideas associated with it, so I chose words that are obviously admiring of such a person - or which are on the edge - having that mix of insult and admiration. The first ones to sell on the exhibition were Freak And Weirdo [pictured above] - people love those words, love to say them and identify with them."

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town

The Flock
Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: The Flock

A collection of images in the exhibition features a flock of sheep, all based on the same character design, in the foreground of photographs that have been taken in front of Table Mountain, in the Karoo, in a garden, and so forth. The photographs have been digitally altered to look as though they have been painted, which you can see when you look closely at them, although from afar they still look photorealistic.

The sheep character is the star of a fetching painting, by Pete, entitled Odd Sheep and mentioned by Elaine above, that forms the focal point of the exhibition space's back wall and which visually ties the exhibition together beautifully.

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: Who Goes There?

"Putting the character into those environments created intrigue and a story that you can make up yourself," says Elaine. "I love that character because he's not your sweet and happy cartoon - in fact he's quite grumpy, stolid, determined, a survivor, with a bony forehead. He makes me laugh and I was really amused while making those images. He lands somewhere in between 'cute cartoon' and lowbrow, dark art (a genre I like a lot)."

Since there's so much potential for this character I asked if he will be appearing in more works in the future. "I may make more sheep photographic scenes and if I do they will be large format," Elaine says. "Pete's sheep character will also live on through other canvasses and projects of his."

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey: Pop Art From Cape Town: Table Bay Flock

What you've seen illustrated above is just some of what's on display at the exhibition. There is also a small collection of "Monkey Posters", which are older monkey-themed digital artworks that Pete has produced, and you can also buy a postcard booklet that features over 40 of the artworks in the exhibition. It's a great keepsake if you want a memento of the collection - or the individual images are sure to delight friends who are fans of receiving postcards in the post.

All the artworks are for sale, some in limited-edition series. While the flock photography and the Monkey Portraits collections are ongoing projects, Elaine says that the Sheep Trophies project, which comprises about 15 pieces, is definitely a once off so this is likely the only time that you will be able to view and buy them.

Black Sheep | Clever Monkey is running at The d'Wine Art Room in Heritage Square, Cape Town, until the end of the month. (It's in the block on the corners of Buitengracht, Bree, and Shortmarket Streets and if you can't find it just ask at Bistrot Bizerca - you can actually walk through the restaurant to get to the square.) Entrance is free and the gallery is open on weekdays from 12:30 "till late", according to the gallery's owner, Shaileen Davis.

Tags: #arts_and_culture, #cape_town

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