2011 – Michael Godby – Stains Upon Silence

Stains upon Silence’: Reflections on two series of work by Andries Gouws

Michael Godby

 

Paintings of feet

Andries Gouws’ paintings of feet are difficult. Gouws himself wrote in an artist’s statement in 2008, ‘As I paint [feet] they sometimes seem intensely personal, intensely naked, as vulnerable and private as bare breasts, so much so that I find looking at them embarrassing. At other times they exude a raw, animal power – more than a match for my gaze’. And he has said that they ‘do not have the meditative quality of my Interiors or Still Lifes, possibly because the feet unnerve me – an appropriate response’. Gouws discovered after he had embarked on his feet paintings that others, notably Adolph Menzel, had treated the subject before, but his treatment of feet as the principal subject of a painting is largely unprecedented. From his own statements, moreover, it is fair to say that these paintings are at best disconcerting – or, in Gouws’ terms, embarrassing and unnerving – and at all times in some degree of revulsion.

Two personal anecdotes: Some while ago, a friend who was training to become a reflexologist kindly offered to massage my feet as the practical part of her course on the sole condition that I commit to the treatment over a given number of weeks. While the massage itself was therapeutic and pleasurable, I found the experience as a whole increasingly uncomfortable. The image of Mary Magdalene, the penitent sinner, began to haunt the therapy sessions and I came to dread the sense of abjection that I perceived in my friend. I recognize this sense of shame in Andries Gouws’ paintings of feet.

I remember also a colleague’s reaction to a Cape Town painter’s very large canvasses of family and friends entirely naked: ‘these paintings’, she said, ‘tell me more than I need to know’. Obviously this was not a complaint about nakedness in art – the nude is a major theme in the history of Western art – but about the way nakedness was represented. In the Western tradition, the naked body – or the ‘nude’ in Kenneth Clark’s formulation – has been the vehicle of ideal art, a form of expression that necessarily involves some level of allegorical or symbolic meaning. On the other hand, as the history of Manet’s Olympia reminds us, the naked body has been used to refute this tradition and to demand attention simply to itself: Otto Dix and Lucien Freud, amongst others, have both shocked and delighted with their accounts of the facticity of the human body. The family groups referred to above, by contrast, appeared rhetorical and gratuitous.

But there are other distinctions that come to mind when considering Andries Gouws’ paintings of feet. For example, the styles of representation indicated above all assume the depiction of the whole body or the greater part of it. Detailed examination of one part of the body proposes a very different relationship with the subject. In this regard I have always found David Goldblatt’s series on ‘Particulars’ problematic. Scrutiny of a detail of the human anatomy – a breast, a throat, or a groin – seems to me both voyeuristic and intrusive. The cropping of the body tends to negate perspective and so renders what remains uncomfortably close. And the omission of the face precludes agency in the subject and the possibility of its ordering the spectator’s approach. Obviously, this response varies according to which parts of the anatomy are treated. Private parts, evidently, are private. But, with one exception, all parts of the body are likely to appear vulnerable and exposed unless special care is taken to render them otherwise. However, hands have long been represented in Western art. This subject appears acceptable not simply because it has been authorized by time but, surely, because hands may be expressive in themselves and studies of them, from Dürer onwards, have made them eloquent vehicles for the state of mind of the entire human subject. Feet, in contrast, can never be eloquent, at least not in this way. The idea of feet ever gesturing or expressing some emotional or mental state is preposterous. Feet are essentially mute and they are essentially passive. Feet do not act: they are acted upon.

Another distinction that is worth bringing to Andries Gouws’ paintings of feet is that between the study and the completed work although, obviously, contemporary practice very often chooses to ignore this difference. Feet, alone or with other details of human anatomy, have long featured in the sketchbooks of Western artists – Rubens and Watteau, for example. These studies – in pencil, ink, even oil paint – constitute searches for appropriate representations of physical qualities such as the distribution of body weight between two feet, how feet touch the ground when a figure is running, etc. These discoveries are intended for use in finished works, whether or not they were incorporated in the event. Andries Gouws’ feet paintings, in contrast, are conceived in origin as finished paintings – and their scope is manifestly wider than simple physical records.

The high degree of finish of Gouws’ paintings of feet demands the attribution of considerable significance to this part of the human anatomy in both general terms and in relation to the individual subject whose feet are represented. The quality of the finish invites viewers to look very closely at a part of the body at which they are not used to looking – not least because there is no real artistic tradition for doing so. Because of this lack, there is little help in making sense of feet as a subject. Moreover, because of the muteness we have recognized in them, feet themselves provide little assistance in their own interpretation. The refusal of the subject to provide meaning on the literal level forces the viewer to search for other levels of significance which the intensity of the finish surely demands. In this way, muteness translates from a simple inability to speak to become a condition without language. And passivity in the subject translates from a state of inaction to become a receptacle of all action. Gouws’ paintings of feet thus put one in mind of Van Gogh’s Boots whose worn form represents metonymically the hardships of their owner’s life. But Gouws, of course, searches for these signs in the very form of his subjects’ feet. In removing the footwear, as it were, Gouws introduces qualities of intimacy and immediacy that were not part of Van Gogh’s project. And in this exposure he captures not only the nakedness and vulnerability of the individual human subject, but also, one would think, a wider existential condition. Moreover, while, as we have seen, feet in themselves are essentially mute and undemonstrative, the variety that Gouws has introduced into their representation – of type, of point of view, of position in the picture format – renders them both curiously individual and, in a surprising way, expressive.

To return to a personal note: I have seen Andries Gouws’ feet paintings exhibited publicly and I have never thought that I would want to own one (a useful if incomplete criterion when thinking about art). As we have seen, Gouws himself provides the vocabulary for this reaction: I have found the nakedness of the feet just too intense, too disconcerting, too raw. I believe that I could live more easily with Goya’s Disasters of War. But this discomfort presupposes a more or less public context, an exposed space similar to the gallery space where I first saw them. In a more intimate space, where nakedness is more familiar, these paintings of feet would, I believe, gravitate from embarrassment, even repulsion, to invite tenderness and empathy. Perhaps other viewers are less squeamish than I but it seems to me that in his paintings of feet Andries Gouws is raising the stakes of viewer engagement with his works and offering the reward of extraordinary resonance and intensity.

 

Rhopography: Interiors and Still Lifes

Andries Gouws himself distinguishes between the paintings of feet that he started in 2007 and his earlier representational work, and it seems appropriate to follow his distinction here, albeit in reverse order. In fact it is with some relief that one turns from the intense proximity of his feet paintings to the more relaxed gaze that is suggested for his Interiors and Still Life paintings. Moreover, the sense of exposure and vulnerability that one is party to in relation to the feet paintings – as with other representations of fragments of human anatomy – is absent from these works: spaces and objects can never be naked in this way; nor, however suggestive they may be, can they ever fully represent the intensely human ideas of suffering and pathos.

And yet, of course, there are significant points of contact between the two sets of work. The stoic muteness of the feet paintings would seem to derive from the intense silence of the Interiors and Still Lifes. And their naked intensity obviously relates to the idea of transfiguration that Gouws explored in his earlier work. Moreover, in the same way that feet are a patently difficult subject for painting, so Gouws earlier was obviously not averse to the selection of difficult views of interior spaces, and unlikely objects for scrutiny in a Still Life painting. But, by his own account, Gouws wanted to break with what he appears to have understood as the too easy legibility of his early representational work and confront his viewer with a difficult and demanding subject.

Gouws has also suggested that the change might have been because what he had been doing ‘had been verbalised and defined to death by myself and others in the catalogue texts, interviews and reviews’ around the Hiding behind simple things exhibition of 2006-2007: as he put it, ‘too many “unnecessary stains upon silence”’. Gouws is, indeed, a most articulate and insightful commentator on his own (and others’) practice and both the fullness of his critiques, and his apparent unhappiness with verbal accounts of his work make it seem redundant, if not actually impertinent, to write about his work. Moreover, as he says, Gouws seeks ‘a silent clarity beyond chatter about meaning’. And he is deeply suspicious of theory, that habitual armature of discourse: ‘the less I resort to theoryladen talk, the more alive I feel – more in touch, less weighed down by my baggage, less foolish’. Nonetheless it is perhaps still possible to pick up certain ideas that Gouws has provided and offer some new readings of, not only his early representational work, but also the Interiors and Still Lifes that date to the same period as his feet paintings.

Andries Gouws has stated repeatedly that his paintings are about his ‘everyday world and its objects – alternatively numinous and banal’: ‘the banal lies on this side of meaning, and the numinous in the beyond of meaning’. These three terms – the banal, the numinous, and their alternating relationship with meaning – seem to underpin Gouws’ project, both the feet paintings and his Interiors and Still Lifes. We shall see that it is a deeply resonant, if occasionally ambiguous project.

Gouws delights in listing his mentors in art, notably Piero della Francesca and Vermeer. These artists invite consideration of his Interiors and Still Lifes within a particular tradition of seeing, a mode of contemplation that, as he says, is deeply embedded in silence. For this reason, probably, most of Gouws’ references, in both image and commentary, are to the visual arts. Ostensible subjectmatter, evidently, would detract from the experience of looking while visual reference should serve to enhance it. Thus Gouws has modelled many of his works on established genres, such as Still Life and Interior, and also familiar compositional practices, such as objects on a shelf. Moreover, in these compositions, he usually depicts motifs that reference visual rather than verbal narratives, such as reproductions of paintings – by Masolino, Piero, El Greco, etc. – and objects that inhabit works of art rather than symbolic reference: thus skulls and bones in Gouws’ work seem to connote not mortality, as they might elsewhere, but the studio practice of artists such as Henry Moore. And the shelves on which these object are arranged seem to refer both to actual structures in his own or his wife’s studio and to the established practice of representing such structures in Bonnard and Morandi, to cite two more of Gouws’ mentors or, in local terms, Enslin du Plessis or Moses Kottler.

While Andries Gouws continues to use these pictorial structures in some of his work in the present exhibition, other paintings suggest that he is wrestling with the ambiguities of working in an established genre. On the one hand artistic precedent may undoubtedly enrich one’s perception, but on the other it might seem also to stand in the way of original apprehension. For some time now, Gouws has been choosing manifestly ‘unartistic’ subject-matter apparently to escape not only all sorts of verbal but also visual reference: in similar manner, Gouws’ colleague artist Clare Menck refuses the name of Still Life for her work, preferring the prosaic title of ‘Paintings of objects’. Thus recent Still Life paintings by Gouws focus attention on an electric plug, a hand basin and, in the present exhibition, a dirty painting cloth; and Gouws’ Interiors feature commonplace bedrooms, for example at Grahamstown and Laersdrif, and the nondescript interior space of Lamps, turquoise wall and bricks. These objects and spaces have no possible aesthetic reference and are manifestly presented for scrutiny in their own right. In Norman Bryson’s terms in his aptly titled Looking at the Overlooked, these subjects constitute Rhopography, ‘the depiction of those things that lack importance, the unassuming material base of life that “importance” constantly overlooks’. Bryson’s point is that such subjects are not only different from significant literary subjects of one form or another: they are actually in opposition to them.

Andries Gouws has explained what he wants his viewers to see in these paintings. He wants to slow down the viewer’s eye in apprehending the work, as his own eye was slowed down in the lengthy process of making it. Like Milan Kundera in Slowness, Gouws wants his viewer to respect their world and subtly change their relationship to it. He wants the viewer to become absorbed in his work in the way that Michael Fried (in Absorption and Theatricality) has shown that Greuze and Chardin depicted figures that were lost in their own thoughts. Gouws wants this absorption to approximate meditation in which objects, when focused upon, take on a heightened reality and become, in effect, transfigured. His vocabulary, as he states, is comprised of light and threedimensionality and inevitably the example of Vermeer springs to mind: light fills spacious interiors, circulates around objects and caresses their surfaces. This is not a rational Florentine light that is used simply to define the three dimensionality of objects but light with a life of its own as in Piero’s late panels (or Giovanni Bellini’s golden altarpieces) in which it plays with the surface of things and dances off floating motes of dust.

Thus while Gouws’ selection of objects, notably the wall plug, might remind one of Oldenberg and other Pop artists, his treatment of them is the exact opposite to their materialist reference in his invocation of the immanent and transcendent. Although not cited by Gouws, better comparisons would be to Chardin’s deeply appreciative renderings of domestic economy in the form of modest meals and kitchen equipment; or Zwelethu Mthethwa’s recent photographs of makeshift heating appliances in his End of an Era series that, while not actually transcendent, manage to invest rudimentary mechanical forms in entirely sparse contexts with a real sense of the humanity of their users. But Gouws deliberately avoids ethical, as well as social reference in his choice of subjects arguing that meditation, and psychotherapy, have taught him to find sufficiency in anything that presents itself to view. Gouws notes that as a way of seeing, his paintings represent a ‘dream of cultivating awareness of all things indiscriminately’.

 

New Directions: kenosis

In the event, Gouws has not continued a project of representing all things indiscriminately: at a certain point, as we have seen, he turned to a close examination of feet. And, even before this change in direction, Gouws had made significant decisions about the kind of subjects he would explore or, to be precise, those he would shun. As he says, his paintings ‘are not about opulence or plenitude, promises of eternal happiness or youth, nor about persons or objects that are themselves attractive’ – in this statement separating himself utterly from Vermeer who is otherwise, surely, his prime mentor, but who rejoiced equally in both the humble and the extravagant, and in both vernacular and sublime forms of beauty. Gouws has argued that ‘attention to the suchness of things’ that meditation and the act of painting can bring about is not possible with any subject that is ‘too loaded with intrinsic interest, utility or attractiveness’. But, paradoxically, the seeming concentration of his subject-matter on the ‘impoverished and unimportant’ suggests a particular focus to his project. Gouws’ renewed – or, at some level, continuing – concern with meaning is apparent in at least two works on the present exhibition. Thus the Metaphysical or Surrealist character of the Alexis Preller-like Ingrid’s studio, Richter and phrenological head suggests the possibility of meaning through random association. And while, on one level, the Still Life, Painting cloth, represents a (provocatively) nondescript subject for a work of art, on another it is, of course, a residue of the act of painting and consequently, in a sense, an allegory of painting, perhaps even a sardonic response to Vermeer’s elaborate Art of Painting. Moreover, even before he started on the feet paintings, Gouws acknowledged a level of emotional content in his work:

I have a sense that the disappointments of life have left their mark on my work – even if I can’t say exactly how. I do not paint from the winner’s rostrum. My paintings seem to be a way of coming to terms with, and even celebrating, a world not answering to human desires, a world different from the one we would choose if it were up to us.

Some subjects on the present exhibition, such as jaded hotel rooms, desolate interiors (see Lamp, turquoise wall and bricks) and the much-used, even grimy Bathroom with curtains, Grahamstown, amongst others, appear positively depressing so thoroughly have they banished the notions of opulence, plenitude and beauty.

In these works, which make Vermeer and Chardin’s renderings of simple household objects look both opulent and optimistic, Gouws would seem to be moving beyond his statement that his ‘paintings are about my everyday world, alternatively numinous and banal’. These recent Interiors and Still Lifes, together with the feet paintings from this same time, surely represent a withdrawal from the everyday world with its promise of actualization and redemption, to a thorough-going embrace of the sordid and the abject. The sense of renunciation that is apparent in these works puts one in mind of the bodegones, or kitchen paintings, of Juan Sanchez Cotan (1561-1627) whose spare renderings of vegetables suspended for preservation in a monastery larder seem to define the very limits of material and aesthetic sufficiency. Like Cotan, who actually was a monk, Gouws now works in terms of a radical kenosis, an emptying out, or purging, of all worldly concerns and so assumes a distinctly monastic, even penitential character. Thus, like the paintings of feet, certain of Andries Gouws’ recent Interiors and Still Lifes are difficult and extreme. But, like Cotan’s, their intense treatment of ‘a world not answering to human desires’ seems to propose both a new standard of disinterested looking and a sensitive visual language with which to apprehend our material condition.

 

Michael Godby is Professor of History of Art at the University of Cape Town. He received his BA from Trinity College, Dublin, his MA from the University of Birmingham, and his PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand. He has published and lectured on Early Renaissance Art, English Eighteenth-century Art, particularly William Hogarth, Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century South African Art, and the History of South African Photography. He has curated exhibitions on South African art, notably Is there Still Life? Continuity and Change in South African Still Life Painting (2007) and The Lie of the Land: Representations of the South African Landscape (2010). He is currently preparing a collection of papers for a book on the History of photography in South Africa; and is planning a new exhibition on the theme of the Interior in European and South African Painting.

 

References

Bryson, Norman. 2001 (1990). Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion Books.

Fried, Michael. 1988. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kundera, Milan. 1997. Slowness. New York: Harper Perennial.