The Picture Stares Back: The Simple Complexity of Time and Looking in Andries Gouws’ Pedestrian Paintings
But those who seek eternity find solitude. – Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, 2008
Eternity: for all its invisibility, we gaze at it. – Ibid
Looking at one of Andries Gouws’ paintings makes me think of seventeenth-century baroque painting: the Dutch still-life painters Pieter Claesz, Willem Claesz-Heda, Willem Kalf, Osias Beert and Cornelius Gijsbrechts, their compatriot Jan Vermeer, the Spanish painters Zurbaran, Melendez, and Sanchez Cotán, and the Italian Caravaggio, in particular the latter’s rendering of detail such as folded cloth. Baroque painters revelled in the painted fold, which toys with the viewer’s sense of inside and outside, here and there, this side and that side, surface and depth, threshold and infinity. In her book Quoting Caravaggio. Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (1999), the renowned Dutch theorist Mieke Bal speaks of “the baroque engagement with surface”.1 In the baroque, surface is made into “the only depth there is”.2 Surface is deep because time is folded into it.
“A fold is always folded within a fold, like a cavern in a cavern”, writes the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze in his sophisticated book The Fold. Leibniz and the Baroque (1993).3 Look at the eye at the heart of the folds in Gouws’ remarkable Painting Cloth (2009-2011). Our eyes are drawn (in)to it; it stares back, like the holes in tree trunks where branches broke off. Animals nest in these holes or eyes, which are also recurring emblems in children’s drawings and paintings. Trees stare back; the eye in the hole is alive. The nineteenth century poet Charles Baudelaire wrote: “Man wends his way through forests of symbols / Which look at him with their familiar glances”.4 The hole in the picture sucks us in, even as it stares back from the folds like an elephant’s eye. Walter Benjamin’s refers to this return gaze as “aura”: “A strange web of time and space: the unique appearance of a distance, however close at hand”.5
I want to thematise the aura of looking and being looked at in Gouws’ paintings, which is tactile and material and involves time. The painting cloth in Gouws’ painting – which from one moment to the next resembles ice bergs, clouds painted by Luc Tuymans, the diaphanous cloth in one of Avigdor Arikha’s paintings, an origami elephant – is an index of time, of the movement of our eyes across surfaces and in our skulls, and of the physical action of the hand that painted it. The cloth is a painting cloth in more ways than one. In its “bending movements”6 it performs the painting action of which it is the result. It manifests the concentration of surface and depth, hand and eye co-ordination, the lived body or “lived continuity” in time.7 In this regard, it brings to mind “the absolute and uncompromising concentration” relayed in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-2). In the Thomas sight and touch, eye, bloodless open wound and finger, occur simultaneously, part of a “unity of absorptive effect”, as art historian and critic Michael Fried describes it in his book The Moment of Caravaggio (2010).8
Gouws’ work also entails absolute concentration, which contributes to the unity of absorptive effect. Here “intense and focused absorption” does “the unifying work of composition” to cite Fried,9 implying a folding of time; of eternity and transience, fragment and whole, continuity and discontinuity, solitude and unity, self and other. I see the other, even as I am seen by them. What I focus on focalises me. The painted surface looks back; I am drawn in. The picture encloses me as it did the embodied painter in the act of painting but it is also separate from me. The time of looking is extended and protracted; the viewer is placed and displaced into the picture. I am here but also there.
The cloth is at hand but it is also a “mark of absence”.10 Moreover, it includes an eye that repels the hand and the viewer from the picture. The eye estranges and distances the cloth marked by the hand. We can’t touch the cloth or grasp sight. We cannot grasp the eye or the hand, signified by the folded cloth, even as they gather the world in.
Thinking the time and materiality of looking also involves thinking about absence and presence, the presence of absence, which add to the absorptive effect of Gouws’ work. In this regard his work is reminiscent of the baroque, even if it is less theatrically spectacular while no less given over to spectatordom. The paintings are there to be looked at even as they give the completely absorbing impression that they can and do exist without our presence. The pictures absent us.
Like Vermeer’s Gouws’ work offers a simple and complex way of thinking absorption in time, materiality, small or overlooked things, which are mutually present and absent, at hand and frustratingly out of reach. The enigma of Gouws’ paintings, similar to Vermeer’s or Cotán’s or those by the seventeenth century Dutch still-life painters, is reminiscent of the enigma of the aura: as the entwining of distance and proximity, uniqueness and repeatability, permanence and transitoriness, everlastingness and fragility, continuity and discontinuity, fluidity and frustration. I am part of these paintings but we are also worlds apart; separate.11
The aura is also manifest in terms of the agency of the paintings, which seem to stare back from afar, like an abyss – at least that is the effect in Painting Cloth or Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1657-8), where the open vase from which the milk pours forever is like a black hole or eye, or Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602), where the black void of the background, similar to Malevich’s black square, produces something akin to a gaze. The staring paintings with sucking black holes are silent witnesses to the viewer’s incredible vulnerability in the face of the void of time, even if in the paintings time is concentrated and full. The whole world is present here, while threatening to disappear irretrievably in the very moment of re-cognition, taking us with it.
Take a look at Gouws’ paintings of feet. Don’t think of the experience of looking at them as only your experience but also as denoting the singularly universal or the universally singular, if I can entwine two terms that the fourteenth century Franciscan monk William of Ockham devoted most of his life to thinking as opposites. Feet VIII (2009-10), Feet IX (2009-10) and Feet XI (2010-11) are Mike’s, Corinne’s and Ingrid’s feet, nobody else’s. This is what lends the paintings their incredible pathos and gravitas, their sense of levity, brevity and existential aloneness. And intimacy too: what can be more intimate than someone’s feet? I remember with an ache my wife and her sister rubbing their father’s feet, as he lay unconscious and dying in his hospital bed. So close, yet so far away.
And minute by minute, Time engulfs me
The way an immense snowfall engulfs a body grown stiff.12
The body of the other engulfed by time is also my body while the paintings of feet are not just fragments or objects. Fried writes that Adolph Menzel’s painting The Artist’s Foot (1876), “is not the foot as an object, a fragment of the Körper (Scheler’s term for the body as object as opposed to the lived body or Leib), but rather the foot in all its muscular tension and nervous vitality, as experienced from within by the embodied artist”.13 Even if Gouws’ paintings are not of his own feet, they evoke them in their tactile, lumpy proximity and in the process they tacitly thematise “the very different but no less physical action of the hand … that, wielding a brush, brought the picture into being”.14
The embodied painter is in the picture, hand and foot, and so are we: those are our feet, gnarled by time. They are within reach of our own hands. Of course, they also remain inaccessible, like our own bodies. Although my hands and feet are “inside” the world and the world is manifest through them, is coeval with them as thresholds; I am unconscious of them much of the time. I zoom in and out of my hands and feet the way I do in and out of a painting or a mirror, like the one that stares back in Gouws’ Room with Mirror and Curtains (2009-2011).
First off, the painting reminds me of Avigdor Arikha’s paintings of reflective surfaces in interiors, which seem to fold inside and outside, “subject and object of knowing”,15 gaze and return gaze: for e.g. the reflective silver teapot in Tea Time (21 November 1992); the reflective glass of the open study door in Summer Day, Indoors (12 July 1991), in which one can see the outside of a typically Parisian apartment block; the framed drawing of a nude in Near the Window (13 November 1992), in which the window next to it is reflected; the silver spoon with the engraved name “Sam” just discernible on the hand, in Sam’s Spoon (21 September 1990), which the artist painted the day before the first anniversary of his friend Samuel Beckett’s death and in which, in the dark, just above the patches of light, one can make out a shape almost resembling a table (the artist’s work bench?); and the mirror in Mirror in the Studio (1987), in which one can see part of the artist’s face peering intently from behind a canvas, like in Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656). In both Arikha’s and Gouws’ work, outside and inside are reversed; what is far or behind is telescoped up close, in front of us. The world is both visibly and invisibly folded together: here and now, in the past and in the future not-yet.
But for all their remarkable similarities in terms of subject matter and delicate touch, the two oeuvres also differ markedly: while Arikha amazingly paints his paintings in one sitting, alla prima, Gouws labours a long time on his. This labour produces a layering of time and sight, which adds to the absorptive effect. Labour adds layers and layering adds depth to the surface, into which we are absorbed whilst we look or think back.
In his book Double Negative (2011), South African author Ivan Vladislavić speaks of “[t]he seductive mysteries of things as they are”.16 It is the mystery of singular universals, universal singularities and eternal fleetingness. Things are seductively mysterious – sometimes in a flash; sometimes gradually in hind- or foresight or in the intervals. The now-time of the mystery always involves a series of memories of what has already happened and what is still to come (like death or absence). This is the daily practice of painting, to quote the title of a book written by the great absorptive painter Gerhard Richter: every brushstroke is a concentrated recollection of past, present and future.17
Richter’s emblematic neo-baroque Skull (1983) makes an appearance in Gouws’ Ingrid’s Studio, Richter and Phrenological Head (2010-2011). The blurry reflection beneath the expressionless skull transforms Richter’s painting into a metapainting: a painting about painting. The painting’s self-reflexivity is doubled once embedded within another painting. What adds further to the play of reflexivity is the shadow that falls at an angle across the picture within a picture. Richter’s painting already involves a play between shadow and light, clarity and obscurity, original and blurry reproduction, uniqueness and repetition, life and death, thing and stain, meaning and meaninglessness; Gouws adds another layer by quoting the picture in a tableau arranged in his wife Ingrid Winterbach’s studio. The aura of Richter’s vanitas picture of hollow eyes increases when we recall that Winterbach is also the author of Die benederyk (2010): a multileveled book about painting and the dead.18
Finally, Gouws’ paintings perform looking and thinking. They theorise in the doing the frustrating palpability of eternity and fleetingness, the singular and the universal, proximity and distance, presence and absence, obscurity and illumination, shadow and light, the pedestrian and monumental. Here every seeing is intensely solitary (I alone can see and experience the infinite mystery of this moment) but also fluid and unifying. One must be alone in order to be absorbed in the world but you and I have this in common. The viewer is enfolded in the meticulous, solitary process of painting, in and out of time.
Dr Gerhard Schoeman is a senior lecturer in the Department of History of Art and Visual Culture Studies at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. He has published exhibition catalogue essays, book reviews, exhibition reviews, and articles in Art South Africa, The South African Journal of Art History, De Arte, Acta Academica, Philosophical Papers, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Artthrob, and Enclave Review. His specialties include Walter Benjamin, the melancholy image, thinking images, metapictures, contemporary art and philosophy, contemporary South African and African art and philosophy, image reproduction and reproducibility, image and afterimage, film and photography. Schoeman is currently completing a book titled Thinking Photographs: Art, History, Time and Reproducibility. He is himself a painter. This essay first appeared in Art South Africa 10(1) (2011): 38-41.
1. Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio. Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 6.
2. Ibid, p. 4.
3. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold. Leibniz and the Baroque. Translated by Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 6.
4. Qtd. in Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”. Selected Writings. Vol. 4: 1938-1940. M W Jennings (ed) (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 313-355, here p. 339.
5. Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography”. Selected Writings. Vol. 2: 1927-1934. M W Jennings, H Eiland & G Smith (eds) (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 506-530, here p. 518.
6. Deleuze, The Fold, op. cit.
7. Cf. Michael Fried, Menzel’s Realism. Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth Century Berlin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 50 on the “lived continuity between the hands and feet they depict and the rest of the artist’s body”, in Adolph Menzel’s paintings and drawings of the artist’s hands and feet. I will discuss Gouws’ paintings of feet below.
8. Michael Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 84.
9. Ibid, p. 85.
10. Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked. Four Essays on Still Life Painting (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), p. 66.
11. Cf. Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 119-134 on “world-likeness” and “world-apartness”.
12. Charles Baudelaire in Benjamin, “Baudelaire”, op. cit., p. 335.
13. Fried, Menzel’s Realism, op. cit. Cf. Benjamin who sketches out a preliminary distinction between Leib (body) and Körper (corporeal substance) in his “Outline of the Psychophysical Problem”, Selected Writings. Vol. 1: 1913-1919. M Bullock & M W Jennings (eds) (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 393-401. Rodney Livingston reminds us in his translator’s notes, “Körper, the more common word, is the opposite of Geist (as in ‘mind and body’) and denotes human physicality. Leib is the opposite of Seele (as in ‘body and soul’) and denotes the human body as the repository of the soul; it belongs to a slightly higher register (as in der Leib Christi, ‘the body of Christ’)”. I would argue that in Gouws’ paintings Leib and Körper are not a binary opposition but are intertwined.
14. Fried, Menzel’s Realism, op. cit., p. 51.
15. Bal, Quoting Caravaggio, op. cit., p. 8.
16. Ivan Vladislavić, Double Negative (Cape Town: Umuzi, 2011), p. 10.
17. Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995. Cf. also R B Kitaj in Julián Ríos, Kitaj. Pictures and Conversations (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994), p. 107: “I paint in a library in which the history of art and other histories intervene every day in my painting practice”.
18. Ingrid Winterbach, Die benederyk (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 2010).