Lived time: Andries Gouws’ solitary paintings
Art South Africa 5(2): 78
Gerhard Schoeman lectures in the Department of Art History and Visual Culture Studies at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. He is also a practising artist.
The novelist Paul Auster writes in his book, The invention of solitude: “For there was an entire universe in that room, a miniature cosmology that contained all that is most vast, most distant, most unknowable. It was a shrine, hardly bigger than a body, in praise of all that exists beyond the body: the representation of one man’s inner world, even to the slightest detail.” A little later in the same book Auster observes: “[H]is inner movements were expressed in the form of paintings: an emotional state finding tangible expression in a work of art, as though another’s solitude were in fact the echo of his own.”
Andries Gouws’ paintings miniature, filled to bursting point with nothing more than silent matter tangibly conjure up the time and space of solitude. What one senses in these paintings is the solitude that necessarily accompanies someone’s attentive observation of the little things that make up mundane spaces. Each solitary painting shines dimly with an inner vitality and time that echoes the painter’s own inner space a space of ascetic absence rather than emotive presence, for, to cite Auster again, the painter “must make himself absent in order to find himself there.”
Whether Gouws renders a bar of soap, an animal skull, a trunk on a wardrobe, a detail of a book the sensation remains the same: it is the bodily sensation of empty space, and the stillness that inhabits it. Each mute thing mindfully observed by Gouws, in what the art historian Michael Fried refers to as “lived time”, is a still life: part of the genre of still life painting dating back to the seventeenth-century. But if seventeenth-century Dutch still life paintings of dead things and living things on the verge of death have a didactic impulse, reminding the viewer of the vanity of all things worldly, Gouws’ still life paintings are without instruction. Life and death may be intimately interwoven in Gouws’ paintings, but the moral remains in abeyance.
Not only is the moral kept at bay in Gouws’ paintings, but so also the meaning. Where much contemporary art is obsessed with meaning I can vividly hear art teachers request of their students’ work: “But what is it saying?”, “What does it mean?” Gouws’ paintings evoke meaning only in the absence of meaning. Something is said, but only for those who don’t need it. Which is not to say that Gouws’ paintings are entirely meaningless; as the contemporary German painter Gerhard Richter has observed, the simple act of painting is meaningful in itself.
And painting and looking are inseparable. The nineteenth century German philosopher Robert Vischer speaks of “empathic seeing”, which once it has attended to the outward appearance of things, turns toward their interior by virtue of an “exchange and return”. According to the contemporary art historian James Elkins, there is no such thing as just looking. He writes: “If I observe attentively enough, I find that my observations are tangled with the object, that the object is part of the world and therefore part of me, that looking is something I do but also something that happens to me.” Similarly, the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty says: “Things are an annex or prolongation of [my body]; they are encrusted in its flesh, they are part of its definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body.”
Gouws’ paintings are ruminations of the flesh of the world; by extension, they are ruminations of the moving body in the world. What his paintings capture is the impalpable and palpable sensation of being in the world. This being in the world is often times experienced as absorptive and absorbing; as absorptive and absorbing as the enigma of a thing perceived from up close and from a distance. For the closer we look at something, the more distant it appears, or looks back at us. That is the tantalising paradox at the heart of quiet meditation: you sense something carnal is there, in your immediate surroundings, but it remains just out of reach, as if wrapped up in transparent film much like the seeing body wrapped up in the world. “[T]o see”, writes Merleau-Ponty, “is to have at a distance.”
The oscillation between proximity and distance between intimacy and separation, between inside and outside which lies at the heart of seeing and experiencing the world in its strange matter-of-factness, can be manifestly sensed in the image of a skull. Auster speaks of the skull as enclosing “the room in which the body sits.” The skull and here I’m picturing Gouws’ paintings of animal skulls is both enclosed and enclosing, and as such emblematises our immersion in the thing-ness of the world, and the world’s immersion in us. Gouws’ paintings rescue this double sensation of containing and being contained, without fanfare, without theatricality the way only pictures painted by someone mindfully alone in a room can.