Meditations on the Everyday: Paintings by Andries Gouws
Lola Frost, Goldsmiths College, University of London
The seeming banality of the objects and scenes represented in these recent paintings by South African artist Andries Gouws belies their great depth and profundity. For these small paintings reminiscent of the work of the Dutch Master, Vermeer and the American Modernist, Edward Hopper, are indeed meditations on the everyday insofar as their subjects are of soap dishes, wall plugs, baskets on wardrobes etc, but these banalities become more potent than those obvious denotations might suggest. For the poetic charge of these paintings consists in their capacity to evoke a sense of unease and pleasure simultaneously. In their meticulous precision and size they utilize the language of Dutch still life painting, but their meanings evoke the menace and potency of Hopper’s modern alienation, even as these Gouws paintings capture a unique sense of an aspirant, sensual, and poetically astute sensibility that emerges from a South African, and personal predicament where negativity is both inscribed and critiqued.
For although these paintings are seemingly neutral depictions of things seen and touched and as such merely ‘everyday’, when seen as a collection they code not only the everyday experiences of a modern subject, the soap dishes, steps and the wall plugs etc., but also they offer a view on a sector of South African culture in the renditions of animal skulls, empty barns, enigmatic corners of rooms which evoke a rural and non-contemporary reality. This is a reality we are asked to conceive of as negative, filled with ‘abjection’. For example a skull wrapped in domestic cling wrap; a lampshade awkwardly hangs in an empty room; a bag of cement lies in the brooding shadow of an empty barn; a torn, old and ominous curtain blocks the bright light outside; a basket sits precariously atop a wardrobe. These codings evoke suffocation, longing, displacement, frustration and insecurity but never leave the viewer with an unmediated sense of negativity, rather those negative intimations are transformed by the meticulous, poetically nuanced and exquisite painting where each encounter becomes an aesthetic adventure that transcends the report of negativity. This complexity is particularly evident in works like ‘Interior with heads’ and ‘Interior with view of rocks 6a.m. Hermanus’.
‘Interior with heads’ is a marvellous painting that meditates on female confidence and male temerity insofar as the female sculpted head looks confidently forward whilst the male head hangs behind her. Yet this contrast is enriched and complicated by the ‘Rothkoesque’ blur on the wall beside them, for this is neither a shadow nor a wall decoration and exists as an enigmatic, potent and indeterminate sign which operates as a hinge in which both gendered identities are enfolded, even as this union is disaggregated by the collection of allegorical meanings in the surrounding representation of books, artefacts and space. The representation of these objects is reminiscent of Vermeer’s allegorical use of maps, charts and books to designate a world outside the painted interior. This orchestration of allegorical representation, identity difference and multiple stylistic references, operates as a poetic whole where meanings flow and interact, and where the negativity of the difference between male and female is both affirmed and overcome. ‘Interior with view of rocks 6a.m. Hermanus’ by contrast does not code integration; rather the dishevelled bed and looming rocks and hidden perspectives speak of conflict and agitation. But the representation of the sparkling light and fractured planes have an energy and positivity that challenges those conflicts and makes complex any simple contradictions. That is, the meanings of the way it is painted, with force and energy and precision, which introduces a positive charge to the stated conflicts. Negativity therefore always exists in these paintings, but it is also always transformed even as it is also maintained and it is this poetic charge that makes these small paintings so powerful.
One of the most powerful and enigmatic of these images is the deceptively simple and banal ‘Bar of Soap’ in its white ceramic soap holder. Perfect in its construction and almost photographic rendition, heavy in its monumental proportions, there is no obvious conceptual ‘message’ here. It is all affect where the white soap looms out of the gloom, the lip pours into the dark and like Hopper’s painting each element is wrapped in mystery, yet it also looks perfectly ordinary and unmysterious. It is the contradiction between the rhetoric of its banality and its monumentalization, that mobilises the poetic charge in this work, and like the other paintings, it is the activation of our sense of unease and pleasure, positivity and negativity, message and medium, that draws us into this wonderful work.