2007 “Nought for your comfort, nought for your desire” – text in Johann Louw midcareer retrospective exhibition catalogue

Johann Louw – Nought for your comfort

Louw’s work inhabits that mythical, godforsaken moment after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, after the slaughter of the first animal and Cain’s murder of Abel, but before the compensations of society or culture. It calls up a denuded world where only the most elemental has been able to survive, and survival is all that matters. His people are their bodies, bodies completely unprotected against violation, exploitation, enslavement and death. They have no home or shelter, and even their skin seems at times to have been abraded, exposing raw flesh and raw nerves.

Spaces of labour, do, however, exist. Survival is by the sweat of one’s brow. There are no airs and graces; white lies and euphemisms have yet to be invented.

Finery is unheard of. Men wear work clothing, the only clothing there is; women are naked, without being seductive. Sex has already made its appearance, but simply as the possibility of rape, coupling, or possession, not as the possibility of pleasure or love. His figures are not subjects or even objects of enjoyment.

In fact nothing in these paintings evokes the enjoyments of domesticity, sociability, love (spiritual or erotic), or property. Leisure, storytelling, music, dance, wine and [good food] have no place.


The human beings in his paintings are unrelated to the landscapes or featureless spaces into which they have been flung, and unrelated to each other. Or, if there is a relation, it is enigmatic. (What are we, for instance, to make of all those semi-stripped working men of colour juxtaposed with naked white women?)


Where is the unmistakeable pleasure in contemplating this bleak reality? Perhaps in the fact that a human eye and hand can grasp all of this so truly in paint; the fact that there is a painter whose ownmost gestures are simultaneously a veridical rendition of this harsh reality. That the different laws governing hand, paint, and object can become one. That this fearful symmetry can be framed by a mortal hand or eye.



Some heads.

These heads evoke my admiration and envy as a painter. The word “creation” and “creativity” are so overused and misused that it is wise to avoid them. However, these works demand an exception, that is, if we restore to the words their original sense. These aren’t heads being depicted – they are heads being made. Paint is creating flesh (kreas being Greek for flesh).


The faces have the anguish befitting a being at the very moment of coming into being – the act of creation can go wrong, and moreover, created beings are doomed to die, later or sooner. Creator and creation know that there is no room for preciousness here – the creator can’t hold back, must aceept the risk, and plunge ahead resolutely, hit or miss, like a master potter at work.


Living flesh is mobile, therefore it seems as if the paint has not congealed, and won’t congeal. A living being is one single, interconnected whole – the seemingly uncongealed paint seems to express a single gesture on the part of the creator, a deep and intuitive understanding and command of the law generating a head, a gesture, an expression. A simple, single, coherent entity rather than an assemblage of parts.

A head painted like this, grasping everything from way beneath the surface, is immediately removed from the world of the everyday, the familiar, the cosy. It becomes both less and more than the human we can take for granted.



Some landscapes.

If a face suggests an origin in a single act of creation, a landscape is by its nature a record of layer upon layer of geological, vegetable, animal and human processes. Again, Louw’s landscapes to me seem seismographic registrations, or re-enactments perhaps, of the processes that gave rise to them, as often as not, violent ones. (Perhaps memories and intimations of violence are part of what gives Louw’s work its, to me unmistakeable, resonance with South African history and society).

Violent forces throwing up mountains, gashing rivers and valleys into the face of the earth, rasping away vegetation to make roads and leave tracks.


No designated place in Louw’s landscapes for humans, who remain locked into a separate space, or separate spaces. These paintings belong to the sublime; something incommensurable with human goals and the human scale.


Their colour has the sparse beauty of Karoo vegetation.


As always in art, this landscape is also a landscape of the soul, one refusing the soul any crutches, any diversions, the comfort of ornament or luxury. The nature we find here lies at the opposite remove from nature domesticated into a garden or park, offering shelter and succour, comforting us with intimations of the lost Eden.