Andries Gouws: Hiding behind simple things
ArtSouthAfrica (Volume 4, Issue 2, Summer 2005)
The art of Andries Gouws is one of isolation. Not in the sense of the artist being isolated from the world but in that of the artist choosing as his subjects that which the world chooses to isolate. Plug sockets, toasters, wash-basins, rumpled beds, Formica surfaces, cupboard shelves, suitcases, doors, lamps, curtains, walls, ceilings, tabletops and floorboards are the things that constitute the visual vocabulary of the paintings of Andries Gouws. Ostensibly neither epic nor heroic, the subjects of his paintings are nevertheless exquisitely rendered, achingly beautiful and deliberately cleft by what Gouws refers to as the “alternatively numinous and banal” nature of the everyday world and its objects.
Reviews of his work tend to focus upon this, their most obvious aspect: Lola Frost opens her essay “Meditations on the Everyday: Paintings by Andries Gouws” with the statement “The seeming banality of the objects and scenes belies their great depth and profundity.” To be certain, painting a dusty shelf or a bathroom soap-holder with the aesthetic conviction, intensity and technique of a Vermeer or Piero della Francesca is novel indeed, but to see this as the sine qua non of Gouws’s works is to do them an injustice. In order to understand the true schismatic of his creations one needs to scratch a little more to find beyond the skin of the canvas the skull he is so fond of painting.
Gouws, surely by no mere dint of circumstance, moonlights as a philosophy lecturer and, in his painting, is obsessed with the notion of “meaning”. He claims to seek “a silent clarity beyond chatter about meaning” and quotes the poet Fernando Pessoa: “The only hidden meaning of things / Is that they have no meaning at all.” In his paintings, by centring his gaze upon apparently arbitrary glimpses of the supposedly quotidian minutiae of life, Gouws attempts to transcend the concept of meaning by concerning himself with subject matter most would consider meaning-less.
Yet here lies the paradox of his work and the one which makes it so flawed and so compelling: in order to overcome meaning the artist has to engage with it more intensely than anyone else. It’s a struggle which brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s famous assertion that “words are an unnecessary stain upon nothingness” whose rider, of course, is the simple fact that he said it.
Thus, though he might proclaim his desire to utterly break free from the mire of meaning, Gouws’ real achievement lies in his ability to re-think, re-define and reclaim it from one of its many golden cages of superficial beauty. By marrying the purely aesthetic concerns of the old masters with a surrealist’s conceptual conviction to equate the mundane with the majestic, Gouws creates an artistic netherworld where his paintbrush permanently hangs by the thin thread between creation and destruction.
Alexander Sudheim is a critic, poet, song- and screenwriter. This article originally appeared in Art South Africa’s special issue on “Painting in South Africa” (Volume 4, Issue 2, Summer 2005). The artist thanks Alex Sudheim and Art South Africa for permission to reprint it.