Frances van Melsen – Numinous Presence

The Art of Andries Gouws

Frances van Melsen

Curator, Technikon Natal Gallery, Durban, South Africa



Frank Stella, the American minimalist, once said of his non-objective paintings: “What you see is what you see”. Figurative references are generally eliminated from minimalist artworks to prioritise the formal elements which are the source of the visual experience. Even in so-called abstract representations however, the viewer tends to seek extra-visual elements in the given, to “read into” or interpret the work as a way of making meaning. Andries Gouws acknowledges traces of minimalism in his work, but the similarity is only one of a reductive paring down to essentials, a concern for clarity and analytical objectivity.


In his paintings a few ordinary, if not banal, objects are represented quite factually with meticulous illusionism. The emphasis is on the physicality of the objects themselves: there seems to be no conscious intention of being profound or implying symbolic deeper meanings. The artist speaks of “cultivating an awareness of all things indiscriminately”. His gaze seems quite dispassionate, a careful scrutiny which translates as precise brushwork, attention to detail, smooth, untextured surfaces and thin washes of muted colour. The “personality” of the artist seems absent: the emotional tone is one of gravity and the atmosphere is silent.


I repeat the word “seems” because Gouws’ work is far from being a neutral presentation of random objects. In artmaking the very act of representation is transformational in that personal choice and intervention are present. A trace of the artist always remains. Therefore, whilst Gouws claims that his “dream remains to paint things with as little meaning as possible”, he admits that there could be subliminal promptings in his selection of imagery.


In a statement about his work, Gouws mentions that his painting is an exploration of “the process of seeing” which is a “confrontation with the raw enigma that things exist and that we can be aware of them”. The key to approaching his work is this emphasis on the process of “confronting” and being “aware”. To “see” implies more than the passing glance and casual “noticing”. It is more than an optical exercise or reflection of images on the retina. The artist is aware that seeing is the meeting of a participating subject with that which is seen. This is the only way the viewer can process and integrate images and thereby personalise and transcend the chaos of the world of appearances. In our contemporary world of advanced technology we are bombarded with images on television, film and computer screens, billboards and magazines. Gouws states that he “hates the speed of looking in the contemporary world”. His project is to halt our visual consumerism and draw attention to objects which are not sophisticated, packaged products for sale, but objects for concentrated attention and meditation. The implication is that mere looking is not the same as seeing: the latter is an active process of discovery.


The small scale of the paintings as much as the strangeness of the objects (a skull on top of a cupboard juxtaposed with small sculptural pieces, a section of an interior or a solitary basin in a room) encourages the viewer to look closer, as though through a telescope, at intimate corners or fragments of the artist’s world. The theme of Gouws’ paintings is predominantly the still life, familiar objects and spaces of his home or studio. Figures are absent, possibly because the human subject is too loaded with affective significance.


The subject of the paintings however, is not the still life, but the “presence” evoked by the objects, one which bears the trace of the artist as originator of the images and one which is the site of interaction with the world of the viewer. One of the ways in which “presence” is felt is in the spatial organisation of the artwork. Gouws’ favoured angle of vision is “looking up”, through the use of low perspective, one that the viewer has to adopt also. Looking up signifies reverence: it reinforces at once a sense of distance from the image and its potential mystery.


This notion of “presence” determines the enigmatic effect of Gouws’ work, because although in the process of seeing every attempt has been made to avoid distraction or manipulation through startling imagery or emotive outpourings of self, the work exists only through the action of the artist. He is physically absent but the painting is his.


A similar sense of numinous presence pervades the works of Piero della Francesca, Morandi and in a different sense, Magritte. The similarities are in the concentrated focus on reality, the even light that bathes everything in silence and hence a remoteness from the world of “events”. An even more pertinent reference would be to the work of Vermeer, whose intimate Dutch interiors are profoundly enigmatic. Objects and people absorbed in various activities in interiors, that remain in the hands of lesser Dutch artists on the level of the anecdotal or illustrative, become in Vermeer’s paintings numinous. This transcendence of the physically given is achieved not only by the seeming ordinariness of the imagery, but by the presence of the penetrating gaze of the artist which illuminates these silent spaces in which the figures are absorbed in their private worlds. Except for the absence of figural imagery in Gouws’ work, the effect is the same.


The Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, much admired by the artist, explains this sense of “presence” as follows:


I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me

if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things.

you’ll touch what my hand has touched,

our handprints will merge


Gouws’s paintings are a meeting place for artist and viewer: in this sense it is as though they wait, pregnant with possibility and awaiting discovery.