Andries Gouws: Meditations on the Everyday
Jill Addleson, Curator of Collections, Durban Art Gallery
Andries Gouws is one of the few contemporary South African artists whose subject matter is rooted in 17th century European painting. This is not a co-incidence; Gouws became familiar with works by those artists when he studied art in the 1970s in The Netherlands.
Like the Dutch and Italian painters of the 17th century, he focuses on limited subject matter – the still life, the interior and on drawings and paintings of skulls. Unlike those earlier artists, he paints animal, and not human, skulls. These skulls are not symbols of the transience of life, as they are in earlier Dutch painting; they are works which invite the viewer to examine the sheer beauty of the animal skull, and to focus on its colour, texture and shape and on the inter-relationship between the parts of the skull. His works are never large in scale; the smallness of size enables Gouws to paint the very essence of the skull, each skull honed down to the basic elements of painting and drawing: line and form, colour and texture, while he uses light and dark to enhance the mystery and beauty of the object. What intrigues us, too, is that the source of the light is not always apparent. Through scale and by paring down the object to its basic form, our eye is ever focused on the skull, never permitted to wander away from it and out of the picture plane. Paintings using the skull as subject include Warthog Skull Study 1 and Study 11, Drawing of Warthog Skull and Drawing of Baboon Skull.
Gouws does not use a wide range of colours; through muted colours the viewer becomes all the more aware of the objects themselves and their relationship with one another. Some of his most intriguing works are those with unexpected juxtaposition of objects such as those in the painting, Cupboard with Soup Tureen and Plug, Wakkerstroom. This work depicts a small white cupboard in the corner of a room; beneath the cupboard is a wall plug currently in use and on top of the cupboard is a soup tureen. The colour range is limited, the major tonalities are creams and creamy yellows used in the cupboard and wall, and turquoises for the tiles. Though plugs are appliances to be found in most homes, they seem unlikely objects to paint. But Gouws succeeds in linking the plug point, the cupboard, the band of wall tiles beneath the cupboard and the tureen perched on top of the cupboard. He accomplishes this through the repetition of the rectangular shape of each individual tile, the rectangle formed by the band of tiles, in the rectangular shape of the wall and that of the plug, all of which are set against the curves of the tureen and its platter. Ultimately, the viewer reads these elements not so much as real objects found in everyday life, but more as abstract pictorial elements. We begin to note the colours he has used, to examine the surface texture of the wall, the form of the tureen on top of the cupboard and the curved wire of the plug extending out of the picture plane. The light streaming in from an unknown source to the right of the picture plane and forming a roughly triangular shape in the left section of the work, focuses our attention on all these shapes.
Equally intriguing are other paintings of interiors by Gouws: these include Interior of Barn, Knoffelsvlei, Eastern Cape and Man eating Breakfast. All these works examine the relationships between objects within an interior which is bathed in light and dark. In The Interior of Barn, the artist has succeeded in making time stand still by transforming a transient scene into something permanent and which the viewer believes will remain unchanged over time.
Other interiors include the still life in works such as Darkened Room and Studio (Durban). We feel the artist’s quiet presence in the latter, though he has already left. He has finished his work for the day and everything has been left in order, ready for him perhaps tomorrow. On his table is an animal skull and his pot of brushes. Our eye wanders over the objects on his table and then up to the three paintings hanging on the studio wall. As in other works by Gouws we begin to consider the shapes of all the objects in the work and to examine spatial relationships between them. The calm orderliness gives this work its sense of presence.
In the final group of paintings Gouws makes use of banal, everyday objects and transforms them into objects of contemplation for the viewer. Works include a number whose subject is the wall plug: Wall Plug, Hermanus, in the Durban Art Gallery collection, Mauve-grey Plug, Black & White Plug and Small Plug, Bar of Soap and Drawn Curtains.
In most of these works the subject fills the entire surface, without any other object being present. In each of them, the artist has depicted an essentially modern subject – the plug, and a bar of soap in a wall container. Even if we regard such objects as unlikely ones to use as the subject of paintings, we nevertheless become engaged in purely abstract, painterly matters such examining the shape of the objects, considering the artist’s use of light and shade and, as in Wall Plug, Hermanus, looking at the relationship between the plug and the floor boards, on one level, and on another, contemplating abstracts: these are horizontal lines (the floor boards), and rectangles (the power point box and the adapter), and the circular and triangular shapes of the two plugs depicted in this painting.
Meditations on the Everyday, Gouws’s own title chosen for his exhibition held in 2003 at the NSA Gallery, Durban, is an apt one, for it describes the very the essence of his work.