Hiding behind simple things
Paintings by Andries Gouws; KwaZulu-Natal Association for the Arts Main Gallery, 17 April – 6 May 2007.
Opening talk by Sally-Ann Murray, poet and professor of English at the University of KwaZulu-Natal
However sophisticated my response to a piece of art can be, however cerebral, at the simplest level I’m a sucker for beauty. Which the paintings of Andries Gouws possess in loads.
But many of us are also suspicious of beauty. Beauty is ostensibly surface, superficial. It’s extraneous and decorative, rather than integral and substantive. That’s how our imaginations have been trained. To call something beautiful sounds a little glib, not far removed from ‘fabulous’ or ‘lovely’ or ‘gorgeous’. So when we look, and respond at the level of the beautiful, we are also torn, wondering whether beauty whether austere or lavish – is any longer a valid category of response, so commonplace has it become.
That’s where these paintings by Andries Gouws give me pause. They remind me that beauty can be extremely idiosyncratic. Gouws’s idea of beauty is precarious, rather than balanced or we might say, packaged. Yes, he finds beauty in the banal; the momentous in the mundane. But there is also a constant uncertainty. If he has trained the ‘naked’ eye to look closely, the blurring suggests he remains circumspect about what it is he sees, and how it is he sees.
The pieces are small, mainly less than A4, which alerts us to the issue of focus, and the intensity which the artist asks the subject to bear. A simply wondrous miniature world. Yet in even the quality of the miniature may lie a simultaneous reaching after enlargement. It’s as if the eye is straining after magnification and having to deal with the frustration of focus in the process. The object at once appears and dissolves in the sustained look of the watering eye.
And what of the painter in all of this? He must concentrate attention on a contained, defined space, one both within and separate from the domestic clamour, for the length of time it takes to make a painting. How is this possible? (More on this later!) And how does the viewer submit to another version of this process in the comparatively quick walk around the gallery, where the volumes and quietness necessary for the contemplative appear more readily available, given the auratic quality of the gallery as a space, but where the constraints of time and other people intervene?
What we see in Gouws’s paintings is in many respects familiar. There’s the ou kassie I’d like to have in my own house and haven’t you got one similar? There’s the perfect, old-style ceramic basin that sits in my ramshackle room of memories trying to hold out against refurbishment. There’s the tin that once held olive oil, and the bobble-edged pink glass Arcoroc plate replicas of which you can now buy at Diskom. There’s the electrical plug, so shadowed into monochromatic that we barely see it, prodded into the wall socket. How much more commonplace can a painter be?
Most of us are inured, now, to the idea of a Brechtian Verfremdung, the estranging potential of the artistic act and achievement. Defamiliarisation? Yeah, right, we’ve seen it all before. And we’ve come to expect that it will be dramatic, explosive, alienating,
In such a context, Verfremdung can hardly compete with the preposterous magnitude and preponderance of advertising billboards. But as Michael Taussig might observe, the point is not always visual competition, but trying to find ways in which to allow the huge disparities of visuality to co-exist in ways that make human life meaningful. Here, meaning may touch us in the hazy flicker of the neon after-image which plays upon the wet tarmac. Meaning may reach out to us not in the blaze of neon, but in the momentary absence of light that happens when we blink, and which makes the subsequent re-appearance of light on the retina that much more blazing such that we need to run away from the intensity, or perhaps are drawn to look elsewhere, on something not even initially connected to the bursting blast of light.
So, in Gouws’s paintings, the oddity of a quiet, reserved beauty, struggling between presence and absence, shadow and light, can be important. It’s not, for me, a matter of Gouws electing austerity over gross plenitude. His work is full, rich. I find him working to engross me, fulfil me as a viewer, in the fullness of his chosen subject. Just as has occurred with his own work as painter: I am asked, in looking, to give each thing its due. And what is due to everything is my full attention. This is the only way to sustain life, even if it is a difficult, killing demand.
Gouws’s paintings have been described as contemplative, scholarly, studious: we have the image of the solitary artist working fastidiously in his studio eyrie. But then link this to the grounded, everyday subject matter and you’re ready to respond to the artist’s open invitation to enjoy visual playfulness. Consider the restrained wit through which he paints representations which feature paintings or pieces of paintings from the classical tradition of representation, or a picture containing containers for which he then very carefully selects an appropriate frame. This is all a form of painting under wraps, whether or not the subject matter is actually a chair in plastic or “painting in bubble wrap”. (It’s more often the very large-scale spatial installation which uses wrapping a coastline, an entire park of trees, so it’s startling to see aspects of this treatment on canvas or board, and in such a limited space.)
Gouws’s treatment of representation is never hyperbolic or overstated, which for some at least one person of my (happily) passing acquaintance – may seem disingenuous, even predictable. Yet in my opinion, because the treatment is so light rather than knowing, and rendered with such delicate technical skill, it can offer a meditation on realism which levitates beyond realism, lifting towards the sur-real, the ir-real. (I offer the remark re the predictable merely to toss in the facile response to Gouws’s painting made by a semi-colleague of mine: eeuugh, he shuddered, all that painstaking dabbing; so anal!)
But this painstaking quality is crucial, and poignant. It gives the beauty of Gouws’s work a sharpness (though I will resist the linguistic platitude and not dare to call the work ‘cutting edge’). For example, he sets himself deliberate boundaries, limits within which to work: the palette is frequently restricted to about three colours, demanding that the painter proceed carefully, indeed painstakingly, in order to mix the shade that he requires.
This is a constraint. It reminds me a little of the French literary group Oulipo, who experimented with language, writing novel-length prose, for instance, which omitted particular vowels. Here, too, I find myself looking at the paintings, rich as they are with shelves of books and the promise of reading, and finding linguistic analogies in the objects that the painter has chosen to place within the visual frame: on top of a ledge is a skull, and next to it a scale; the half-rhyme precariously poised, rather than italicised. Or look at the dark, almost concealed conceit of the globe of the world, overwhelmed for the visual moment, if not actually outshone, by the perfect sphere dim, but not, in this painting, dull of the familiar ball light fitting that aspires to become a moon. This invitation to visual-conceptual complexity gives the paintings an extraordinary beauty. I love the fact of the painter-philosopher as an artist who uses whatever oily medium, the slipperiness of language included, to struggle with making his meanings.
Maybe it’s worth mentioning, too, though this is elusive even to me: on occasions I have looked at some of these paintings, especially those fragments of rooms with lights, basins, ceilings, and wondered whether I am mistaken to take these things for the familiar. How strange they appear. Almost like pure matter; the physics of pure matter. And time standing still. The artist engaging in experiments to consider very precisely the relationship between light and space and mass. What makes a thing ‘old-fashioned’? If it is old, has been, why does it pull so on the present imagination? E=mc squared. There is a poised beauty in this kind of equation that illuminates the artist’s interest in what is lasting, what lasts, and how, at the same time, to represent this with an immediacy that is not the ephemeral. The painter is free to explore the energy of a thing, its ‘thingness’, with an aesthetic that comprises colour, line, perspective, but there’s also a hint of the science informing the aesthetic.
I was on about constraint: another constraint is Gouws’s decision to work with ‘found’ settings, rather than setting a scene; thus the canvas is sometimes filled with a single household object, at others with a habitus that the eyes have gathered from daily life, from the quirky domestic assemblages of his wife and younger daughter. (Gouws acknowledges that he is not a one-man show, and if the domestic situation is inevitably something of a restriction for an artist exactly how much time out is he free to take for his stealing/steeling of beauty? – he explains in the catalogue how he has learnt, over time, to allow ‘home’ to emerge as a source of inspiration).
In this regard there is an illuminating quotation from the catalogue concerning the detour, the twenty year plus re-tour, that Gouws has had to make to arrive, again, at the ordinary. He says: my everyday surroundings I had abandoned as subject matter for my paintings, abandoned “as not sophisticated, interesting, exotic, innovative, avant-garde, exciting, relevant, important, European, sexy enough. Real art had to happen elsewhere, painted by somebody else, a person I had yet to become” (p.12).
Being, becoming. I must also remark that while the subject matter of the paintings is domestic and familiar, it is not wholly domesticated. Unheimlich, uncanny. OK, this is not the genre of the horror movie, so the basin tap will not run with blood when it is turned, but there is an unsettling element in the process and finished effect of the transillumination needed for these paintings. The eyes have to home in on the habituated materials of everyday life, but only as dictated to by an odd scale and often a fragmented and awkwardly angled attention. And they must do so against piercing light, or in semi-gloom. The result is not domestic nostalgia, not the sentimentalized interior. The paintings are still, yes; quiet, but the objects also appear on the verge of an animation stolen from the painter’s own mindfulness. This is not necessarily a peaceful repose. It is dark, shadowed.
There is no ‘just looking’ here. The pleasure is also painstaking; it is something we must bear. We who have allowed experience and language to be bubble wrapped, and asphyxiated, an indifferent take-away to be paid for, swallowed and the package discarded when we’re done.
Gouws’s paintings do no allow us this crass luxury. If what we get in each picture is a ‘slice of life’, I notice too the fragmented quality: the aportioning of a room or an object, a slivering which prevents us from simply being able to consume the whole in one glance. The painter is the man in charge, whether we like it or not, and traditions of portraiture, landscape, still life…these are tipped off balance and we are obliged to respond to more piecemeal representations, left wondering exactly what it is that we are contemplating, or where the light source is, or where the people have gone. There is the typist’s chair, we think. But where is the typist? (And is that even how she imagines herself?)
The paintings are full of holes that we can fill, the absence of people only the most obvious among them. And what about the people? Reviewers claim analogies between Gouws and Hopper, but, as they remark, minus the people. Well, that’s a major difference.
In Gouws’s work, his strange domestic interiors, perhaps the people have not properly moved in, many of their possessions still, very still, in plastic. Perhaps, despite all the implied belongings, they feel too transient to settle properly. Perhaps they are just modern people leading very busy lives. They are never at home with all the demand to live global, act local and they receive gifts disguised as strange parcels from abroad which they don’t really find the time to open but are anyway a little afraid of the contents… I’m not sure. I will have to look, again, at all that is shelved and stored in the paintings.
All of which might be just enough hint that the paintings struggle to contain a transgressive eroticism, hiding aspects of ourselves from us in the light. Does Gouws self-censor because the viewer is inclined to be censorious?
Whatever it is, the people and many of the complexities of their lives have been removed. By the painter. Has he eliminated them? Have the bodies been bagged and wrapped and taped? For the sake of art he is determined to simplify their lives, reducing them to this poignantly objectified collection of essences, essentials, inessentials. Can we find them in essentials? But that’s the trick, as it’s in the rendering of all these disparate things that we must search, impossibly, for the imagination that makes this kind of life, and art, possible.
Look, there is a man. We understand that it is not the painter, but in his looking, askance, beyond the frame, he might well be a transfiguration of the painter. He is not presently busy with his ostensibly peaceful art; it is only breakfast that he is eating, the most important, the quintessential, meal. How calm he seems, not concerned, right now, with any type of gaze. But he is looking. At what, and how, we are left to speculate.
In the paintings there is only the painter. Plus the objects he has within the ambit of the everyday, and which he wants further to include within the separate space of the painting. And there is a space reserved for the viewer. There are no few people. People are represented through things, and indeed are themselves become as dolls, or parts of dolls, or chunks of sculptural statuary. Or they are stylized faces trying to look into uncertain new futures from their original artistic contexts, fragmented figures lifted, but never freed, from the precedent, the grip, of another’s art and historical context.
And what is in the paintings is there only because the painter wants it so. And so. And thus. This is terrifying, it is a terrifying honesty, but we can do nothing except trust the painter’s hand to find a way between the pointed isolation of a confinement that learns towards the macabre, and the more clarifying stillness of the meditative repose. The painter is all we have to populate the pictures with the life we crave, and he gives us a modest quietness, rather than noise and busyness, a sombreness which creeps very close to death. He gives us the things through which he lives, sometimes with struggle and sometimes with forgetting, and the skull ah, the skull, we have to know, is always at one and the same time the sign of death and the will to keep living. It is awe-full. It is wonder-full. It is this gesture to include everyone – all the beauty we have.