ANDRIES GOUWS ABOUT MY WORK
SHORT ARTIST’S STATEMENT
My paintings are about my everyday world and its objects – alternatively numinous and banal, as one encounters them in meditation.
What is meditation? One answer: “to slow things down”. In this sense my painting is meditative – both as process and as product. Every painting is several months in the making, and I want to slow down the viewer’s eye as well.
To share the experience that everyday objects become transfigured when looked at closely.
I seek a silent clarity beyond chatter about meaning. (Pessoa: “The only hidden meaning of things/Is that they have no meaning at all”.)
To make my paintings spacious, I pay special attention to light and three-dimensionality. For the same reason, my paintings are not about opulence.
I feel a deep affinity with classics like Piero and Vermeer, as well as with more recent masters like Bonnard, Morandi, Magritte and Rothko.
Though I think that there are other valid ways of painting, it is comforting to know that many remarkable painters have preceded me in the return to a more representational mode of painting.
MORE ABOUT MY WORK (1)
Every seat is the best seat John Cage
In thirty years I have come from big abstract-expressionist canvasses to small figurative works. I am especially interested in everyday objects, in their alternatively banal and numinous aspects. The banal lies on this side of meaning, and the numinous in the beyond of meaning. Anything really looked at attentively eventually becomes transfigured.
While working, I do not aim to invest my paintings with meaning, though they often seem to have meaning, after the fact. (For instance, suitcases on a cupboard probably echo boxes on top of cupboards that fascinated me as a small child – a box with my sister’s special doll in it, or one with the mysterious inscription “LTD”). Nevertheless, my ideal remains to paint things with as little meaning as possible. Subject matters that are in themselves too loaded with conventional meanings – or otherwise attractive – would detract from the process of seeing and from the confrontation with the raw enigma that things exist and that we can be aware of them. I dream of cultivating awareness of all things indiscriminately.
The only hidden meaning of things
Is that they have no meaning at all.
This is stranger than all the strangenesses,
And the dreams of all the poets,
And the thoughts of all the philosophers
That things really are what they appear to be
And that there is nothing to understand.
From: Fernando Pessoa
The Keeper of Sheep
The Tagus is lovelier than the river running through my village,
But the Tagus is not lovelier than the river running through my village
Because the Tagus isn’t the river running through my village.
The Tagus has great steamships
And on it still bears
For those who see in everything what’s not there
Some memory of the frigates.
The Tagus comes down from Spain
And in Portugal enters the sea.
Everyone knows this.
But few know which the river in my village is
And where it goes
And where it comes from.
That’s why, since it involves fewer people,
The river in my village is freer and greater.
The Tagus takes you out into the World.
Beyond the Tagus there’s America
And the fortune awaiting those who find it.
No one’s ever wondered what lies beyond
The river of my village.
The river of my village makes no one think of anything.
Anyone standing alongside it is just standing alongside it.
From: Fernando Pessoa
The Keeper of Sheep
MORE ABOUT MY WORK (2)
I have a sense that the disappointments of life have left their mark on my work – even if I can’t say exactly how. I do not paint the view from the winner’s rostrum. My paintings seem to be a way of coming to terms with, and even celebrating, a world not answering to human desires, a world different from the one we would choose if it were up to us.
They are not about opulence or plenitude, promises of eternal happiness or youth, nor about persons or objects that are themselves attractive.
Although I paint very slowly and painstakingly, technical brilliance is not my goal. There is no nostalgia for the academic tradition disrupted by Impressionism, even if my work owes little to Impressionism. I feel affinities with twentieth century artists whose work doesn’t at all resemble mine formally – Morandi, Rothko, Magritte, Bonnard. My classical heroes – Piero and Vermeer, mainly – were not those of the academic tradition, which tended to love a cornucopia of form and content. In contrast, my compositions tend to austerity. (Though to be precise, the still lifes and interiors I paint are usually not composed, but found.)
Most of my work is painted with only three colours, none of them pure primaries. (Typical palettes would be: yellow ochre, lamp black and light red; or ochre, magenta and viridian; or ochre, burnt umber and viridian). I find the bright colours of much contemporary painting boring. I am like a composer rejecting Tchaikovsky’s and Ravel’s lush orchestrations to embrace the Doric and other forgotten, austere modes.
My realism is not a matter of principle; whether work is good or bad has little to do with the choice for or against realism. Looking at, say Picasso’s work in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, I am amazed by its power and inventiveness. But I do not set it up as an ideal to be emulated – that moment has passed, and we cannot repeat its freshness. The problem I struggled with in my years as an abstract painter is probably endemic to abstract painting in general: how do you make marks, distribute colour or lines across a surface, in a way that is not arbitrary? You can either attempt to connect to the primeval act of drawing in children or others who have not been trained to draw and look in the Western representative tradition, or you can embrace the Western representative tradition we are all immersed in (partly by being immersed in a sea of photographic images).
After erratic success with the former possibility, I opted for the latter. Once trained in the representative tradition, attempts to escape from it without lapsing into arbitrariness generally fail. No-one attempting this escape today has the power and freshness found in trailblazers like Picasso, the German expressionists, Chagall, or early Kandinsky. Is this why so many of today’s leading artists have returned to a more representational mode? (Lucian Freud, Kitaj, Lopez Garcia, Francis Bacon, Marlene Dumas, Anselm Kiefer, David Hockney, William Kentridge, Balthus, Avigdor Arikha. These artists’ weaker moments often occur when they depart from a close attention to the visible world – as in Hockney’s recent abstract paintings). But Anton Heyboer, Joseph Beuys and my old teacher Emilio Vedova show what marvellous work can still be done outside the realist tradition.
It took me twenty years before I dared return to the subject-matter of my early adolescence: paintings of my everyday surroundings, which, under the influence of well-meaning friends, as well as my own doubts and ambitions, I had abandoned as not sophisticated, interesting, exotic, innovative, avant-garde, exciting, relevant, important, European, sexy enough. Real art had to happen somewhere else, painted by somebody else, a person I had yet to become. Did the resulting misguided detour in some way enrich my work? I hope so.
My artistic journey, with its return to the commonplace, the banal and even the boring, owes much to my extended psychoanalysis, Buddhist meditation, and a training in the rudiments of process psychotherapy. As well as to my own antiphilosophical philosophical investigations. Today I again take the here and now as deserving of my sustained attention – especially when it seems impoverished and unimportant.
To me painting and meditation are essentially related. In both, our normal utilitarian approach to the world is suspended, in favour of an attention to the suchness of things. This pleads against a focus on anything that is too loaded with intrinsic interest, utility or attractiveness.
Meditation only rarely involves a state of complete rest or blissful emptiness. Mostly, it involves bringing awareness to things one would otherwise find too banal to deserve attention: trivial thoughts and feelings; the floor in front of you (vide Wall Plug, Hermanus).
Meditation and psychotherapy teach one to stick with whatever presents itself, in the here and now – however unpromising it seems – and explore it. To thus resist the ingrained temptation to think that life is elsewhere, that the really interesting things are happening in other places to other people, and get used to the idea of occupying yourself with things for no higher reason than that they present themselves to you. (A few days after writing this, I run into a a quote by Andrew Wyeth: he paints the hills near his home not because they are better than other hills, but because they are the hills among which he happens to live.)
Entering the realm my paintings investigate means resisting the lure of superlatives: “exciting”, “amazing”, “important”, “absolutely beautiful”. Breathtaking mountains, lovely Greek villages, perfectly beautiful nudes don’t often lead to the kind of paintings we value today. I extend this distrust of the picturesque and the intrinsically beautiful to any objects or themes calling for superlatives. Many wonderful artists deviate from this – often towards superlatives of horror: Kiefer (the German past), Kentridge’s (the South African past); Gittoes (war).
Great twentieth century art was often manipulative (think of Eisenstein’s Potemkin, Futurism, some surrealism). I admire Modernism. But my work opposes such manipulation, also because its whole armoury of in-your-face devices has now become the stock-in-trade of the mass media and advertising.
Elaborating a position like this carries with it the danger of becoming ideological, which is what happens when one tries to subsume statements about the local under broad generalisations claiming universal validity. I try to avoid such ‘ideology’, such certitude about truth claims too big to be justified by personal experience, and too big in any case to allow of certitude. So that I am appalled when artists enthusiastically embrace theory. Theoretical statements are at a few removes from experience. The less I resort to theory-laden talk, the more alive I feel – more in touch, less weighed down by my baggage, less foolish. Doing justice to experience is too fascinating and demanding to leave time for theoretical justifications. Let me not pretend that I paint the way I paint because I can give a theoretical justification that this is the way one should paint, nor be apologetic because I have no such justification. (How hard it was in the days of apartheid not to feel that one should as an artist be making some sort of statement against apartheid, especially as it was leading to such powerful work in many cases. The fact that my attempts in this direction were stillborn did not seem justification enough).
The work I find most compelling often emanates from experiences completely different from my own. (African art, Goya, Piero della Francesca, Ingrid Winterbach, Beuys, some surrealism). Besides, much art that touches on my own experience can influence me only indirectly because it is formally so different from my own (Japanese and Chinese ink painting; Rothko).
One never reaches the definitive statement of what one’s work is about. It now strikes me how many negations the foregoing contains. Something new to investigate …
FORMAL AND TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS
My painting procedure.
I usually work on a few paintings simultaneously. I start every painting day by looking at my unfinished paintings for a long time, and repeat this a few times a day. Often I’ll look at a painting for months without touching it, considering what it still needs. This way it can take months or years from the inception of a painting till its completion.
The final tweaking of colour and tonality usually takes up more than half the time spent on each painting. Most people probably wouldn’t even notice the difference before and after this tweaking. To me it usually makes the difference between being able to live with a painting or not.
Painting for me is a combination between working from life, using photographs, and free invention. “Wash basin”, for example, started from a photograph I made in a Madrid hotel room. Between 2003, when I started it, and March 2005, when it was completed (is it complete? I may still change my mind), the painting lost a mirror at the top, a soap dish in the centre, a towel rail with towel at the left, a plug and a bar of soap on the basin, and finally: the taps. The shape of the basin was also freely changed from angular to rounded. Over the last few months of painting, I did not consult the original photograph again. The internal dynamics of the painting were all that mattered. In the process the painting also shrunk and took on different proportions. (Usually there is more working from life than with this painting).
Oil on board vs. oil on canvas
My works on canvas and my works on board have a different feel to them. Though all my paintings are done in oils, I find working on board and working on canvas almost like working in two different mediums, comparable to the difference between, say, oil and gouache. Each has its own attractions and limitations. I can’t finally choose between them, and don’t feel I have to.
Minimalism vs. something else
An oscillation between minimalism and something less minimalist is characteristic for my way of working. I am constantly testing how little I can put into a painting and still pull it off.
The less content I put into a painting, the more everything hangs on precisely how I execute it. Some of my most minimalistic paintings have taken me the longest to complete [“Wash basin”; “YMCA room”; “Soap dish with glass”]. Gerhard Richter’s monochrome paintings of a roll of toilet paper (which I only discovered two years ago) are a point of comparison here. Only because of his perfect command of tonality do they work, and do the paintings become numinous.
Returning to a less minimalist painting after a minimalist one usually gives me the feeling: “Oh, this is much easier!”
My choice of colour also tends to minimalism – my most common palette is yellow ochre, magenta and viridian (burnt umber replaces magenta in some paintings, like “Ingrid’s studio”). But sometimes I let my hair down and replace the yellow ochre with oxide yellow lake – an ochre which is brighter because it is translucent. At other times (“Typist’s chair”, “YMCA room”), instead of letting my hair down I tie one hand behind my back by working only with ochre, caput mortuum violet – a dull purplish brown – and viridian. (All in combination with flake white).
Work on board is more easily damaged than on canvas, and thus has to be framed. I reject the current convention of framing work uniformly and as minimally as possible for an exhibition. (The original, beautiful, often quite intricate frames of many paintings in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam disappeared – no-one knows where to; modernist director Sandberg replaced them all with drab, uniform square profile ones, even if it meant completely disregarding the artist’s own choice).
Within the restrictions posed by frame profiles available locally, a lack of framing craftsmanship in South Africa, and the impracticality of doubling each work’s price to cover the cost of having it framed abroad by specialists, I try to find the frame which shows each painting to its best effect. I only look at which frame will be best for this work – not how the different frames will go together. Being one of a row of paintings on a gallery wall is not a painting’s final destination.
If I see an existing frame that strikes my fancy, I often buy it. Usually it is years before I make a painting to which it is suited, “Velasquez and Bellini” being a case in point.
Framers who work to the millimetre being hard to find in South Africa, frames invariably end up leaving less (or more) of my paintings visible than I intended. On a small painting even a few millimetres can make a big difference. When I paint on stretched canvas I can circumvent this problem by exhibiting the paintings unframed. Mostly the exact dimensions of my paintings change while I work on them (sometimes just slightly, sometimes dramatically). I therefore always start with a much larger canvas than the size I intend. Depending on how the painting expands or shrinks on one or more sides, I wait till it seems to have settled into its final size before restretching it onto a stretcher of the appropriate size. Needless to say, this is a labour intensive and somewhat costly exercise, but it allows the format of the painting to change as I work on it.