The Wheel of Life, a key work by acclaimed South African painter, Stanley Pinker, displays all the signature elements of the artist's vocabulary. Drawing on a profound understanding of art history and engaging with the contradictions of the South African political and environmental landscape, Pinker forges these elements into a witty and eloquent commentary on this country.
In the tradition of Jasper Johns’ Post-Pop and Neo-Dada targets, Pinker creates a central device that engages both the Greenbergian notion of the flatness of the surface and the referents beyond the picture plane. In this amusing game of playing with the elements of art, the central circle is situated within a rectangle that echoes the frame and emphasises the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Bicycles, hats and spectacles are rendered as circles, spheres, cylinders and cones, making mischievous reference to Cezanne’s advice to see nature in terms of these constituent elements. The large central circle pierced at left by a translucent triangle may well be Pinker’s tongue-in-cheek allusion to El Lissitsky’s 1919 lithograph, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, an abstract allegory anticipating the Bolshevik defeat of counter-revolutionary forces.
On the other hand, the circle may also be viewed as the arena of the circus under the command of a top-hatted ringmaster. Female marionettes literally bend over backwards and skeletons on stilts perform a danse macabre in which sheep are willing players. A red devil on a bicycle and a red locust suggest that all is not well and allude to a day of reckoning. All of this plays out in a space sprinkled with familiar icons from Strelitzias to flags and medals, which evoke the natural and cultural milieu of South Africa in the 1970s. The Wheel of Life is one of Stanley Pinker’s most astute allegories of political folly. Its rich and complex iconography is guaranteed to provide endless amusement to viewers wishing to speculate on its multiple references and layered significance.