The fascination of dirty pretty feet
Steve Kretzmann, SA Art Times, December 2008
Slowing down the viewer’s gaze is the aim of self-described “Dutch-South African Buddhist-Calvinist bourgeois artist-philosopher” Andries Gouws’s meditative paintings.
“Any worthwhile art demands a meditative or contemplative eye; a pace of looking that is many orders of magnitude slower than what is typical for our age.” This view on his work gives us an idea as to why Gouws also teaches philosophy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Durban campus.
But while academia pays the bills now, he “hopes” to be a full-time artist within a year or two.
And with the first three of his new series of paintings of feet being accepted for the 2007 Spier Contemporary, and his fourth winning the prize for painting at the Ekurhuleni Awards earlier this year, his hopes are well on the way to becoming reality.
His ‘feet’ paintings, on which he started around the beginning of last year, are as revealing have the same pathos and intensity as a good portrait. One can argue that they are in fact portraits.
His focus on feet came about unexpectedly as many good or interesting things do – born out of a need to “move beyond the confines” of what he had been doing for the previous 15 years.
“I had in the past occasionally drawn feet, and once even made a silkscreen to go with Ritsos’s two line poem:
The nights go by with big strides
That’s why the loveliest statues stand with their feet together.
But I had never expected that I’d ever focus on feet the way I’ve been doing,” he says.
It seems the subject matter Gouws has concentrated on over the years has always been rather surprising to him.
Living in Holland for 16 years after studying art in Cape Town (at Michaelis), Italy, Düsseldorf and finally Amsterdam, he started off painting “big, colourful, gestural abstract” paintings in acrylics before moving on to graphics.
In Holland he had “pined” for the South African landscape and climate. On his return, having sold his treasured 500 kg Artel etching press and returned to oils, he imagined that he would paint the landscape and nudes, things which “grabbed my gut most directly”.
But he soon ended up painting interiors and still lifes, unexpectedly connecting with a Dutch tradition that while in Holland he had felt he did not belong to.
Arguably, his feet paintings remain in the tradition of interiors and still lifes, although with a twist that moves them onto a different level.
“These feet do not have the same meditative quality as my still lifes and interiors. They are more confrontational; engaging with feet disconcerts me they look back at me in a way objects in a still life or interior don’t.”
His earlier work, he says, “often suggested that Vermeer and Piero were the artists I had looked at closely”. The current paintings “suggest other triggers: El Greco; Grünewald, Caravaggio even”. For his wife, the novelist and artist Ingrid Winterbach, his paintings of feet have a “Baroque religiosity”. Though he is an unbeliever, the echoes of Baroque religious painting in his rendering of feet shouldn’t be that surprising, given his expressed admiration for Velasquez and Rubens.
But returning to the religiosity of feet, it is interesting to note that he started concentrating on people’s pedal extremities in “late 2006/early 2007”, shortly after former apartheid minister Adriaan Vlok’s famous washing of Director General in the Presidency Rev Frank Chikane’s feet.
Asked whether there was any connection to that highly publicised action and his choice of subject matter, Gouws says: “One never knows! I hadn’t thought about it. Feet perhaps reflect some more elemental aspect of our being – more closely linked to violence, vulnerability, and then I suppose the aspect of asking for, and giving forgiveness, isn’t such a big step from there (excuse the pun).”
Pretty feet are also few and far between, and Gouws does not hide the battering that his subject matter has endured. A clue to his choice of rendering the most abused parts of the body in the rich texture of oils lies in his description of his immediate Durban environment as an area comprising “attractively ugly industrial areas”.
“Durban to me is like one big workshop, in which there is nothing inclining one to preciousness the opposite of Stellenbosch, where I lived for a few years before coming here.”
However, for all the pretty dirtiness of Gouws’s Durban, he describes the studio spaces he shares with his wife as 150 square metres of “wonderful, airy” space lit by “huge” south-facing windows.
It is a working space he does not have any plans on leaving although he admits he wouldn’t mind being nearer something like the Louvre, the Prado or the Met, nor living in a city where art buyers aren’t as scarce as in Durbs.
A new travelling exhibition is on the cards though, for those who don’t get to enjoy the KZN art scene. Gouws is planning on taking his paintings of feet to the Pretoria Art Museum, Oliewenhuis Museum in Bloemfontein, the University of Stellenbosch Art Gallery and other venues which are still being negotiated.
While waiting for the real thing to come to a town near you, you can see digital images of his paintings at www.andriesgouws.com.
The artist thanks Steve Kretzmann, the South African Art Times, and its editor, Gabriel Clark-Brown, for permission to use this text.