Johan Snyman – Opening talk – Vertoef / Linger, Pretoria Art Museum, April 2018

VERTOEF / LINGER

ANDRIES GOUWS, PRETORIA ART MUSEUM

OPENING TALK BY PHILOSOPHER JOHAN SNYMAN

11 APRIL 2018

When I prepared for this talk I looked up Andries’s blog on his own work. What I read and saw there struck the right notes with me, and helped me to understand my own response to his work ever since the first time I saw a small landscape by him in a gallery in Stellenbosch many years ago. An important clue for me was the history embedded in his artistic memory. I’d like to share my road to the discovery of tonight’s painter with you. Just a soft note of caution: I know that my way of looking at Andries’s works leaves a footprint, as Walter Benjamin remarked many years ago about our dealings with paintings. I trust that the footprints of my look will not contaminate the scene (to use an expression from forensics) of Andries’s activity to such an extent that you cannot see anything.

Baroque still lifes by the seventeenth century Dutch masters have always intrigued me. When I was younger, it was the collection of objects: bread; a basket; something meaty like a meat pastry cut open or a dead bird or hare which is going to be cooked; a fuzzy peach and a waxy plum or two; a bunch of nice, very ripe grapes with dew still on them; a silver plate; a goblet half filled with wine; and then, always, a lemon, either cut in half or half peeled; maybe a flower or two, but that may have been overdoing it. This collection of edible stuff and utensils and containers spoke, as it were, of a life of abundance. But, to my mind, it took something to arrange them so that the specific form, the colour, the very tactile surface of each object, and the play of light on that object are presented. But as I became used to the set-up of what can now be called the typical Dutch baroque still life, I started to wonder about the different textures of all the objects in the composition. How is it possible for the artist to render a translucent piece of glass, the downy surface of a peach and the waxy quality of the skin of a plum through the medium of sticky or oily paint? How does the very nature of the medium itself – finely ground pigment mixed with linseed oil – almost disappear except for its colour? Or stated more academically: how does the painter translate the forms, textures, colours and the play of light on them through paint on a canvas? What is the language of paint?

Before I try to answer that question, let me introduce something else into the narrative. By now I was used to looking out for museum guards before poking my nose almost right into a canvas to identify the fine brush strokes and the overlaying of colours to unravel the tricks of the masters for myself. But one day I was confounded to the point of getting goosebumps. After having marveled at Velasquez, Goya and Hieronymus Bosch in the Prado, I came upon Francisco de Zurbarán’s Still life with four pieces, tucked away in a room at the back of the huge exhibition space of the Prado: A silver goblet in a tin plate, a white ceramic flower vase, a wine container of red-brown clay and, lastly, a white porcelain bowl in a tin plate, all placed dead pan in a straight line on a table parallel to the upper and lower edges of the canvas, observed from a slightly elevated vantage point. The table surface a monochrome dark brown, the background all black. It made me rub my fingertips in a strange way as if I could feel the textures and the varying surface temperatures of the objects. It is an austere painting, containers stripped of whatever they could contain, but the richness and warmth of the play of light on these forms, its textures and its colours form an uncanny contrast with the background. The objects are very dead, but they appear alive with light and colour.

If one googles Zurbarán, one will come up with a contemporary American artist, Guy Diehl, with a still life specifically titled In conversation with Francisco de Zurbarán. It is also an austere painting, but clinically so. Other artists who have produced work that echoes Zurbarán also appear. I do not know if this is a sign of the times in contemporary painting. Perhaps. It runs parallel with the interest in Historically Informed Performance Practice and the use of period instruments in music, and an interest in mastering baroque performance techniques, especially in vocal music, as the art of Cecilia Bartoli and our own Kobie van Rensburg attests. But let me stick to painting and get to the artist of this exhibition.

Andries Gouws’s still lifes and his paintings of interiors are uncanny in much the same way as Zurbarán’s painting. At first glance they strike one as meticulously realistic. After an initial astonishment at the “realism” of the painting, one starts attending to the way Gouws paints. There is the layered, almost transparent paint, fine brushwork, finely nuanced tones of colour. But he goes a few steps further than Zurbarán. In Andries’s paintings there is the attention to the working of light on mostly not “painter-genic” objects, objects not intentionally arranged for a painting, but, apparently, indifferently left behind, or discarded, or simply not given any attention until the painter has observed them in their desolation (e.g. Boxes on floor, Suitcase and Ensor book). Two specific paintings in this exhibition are emblematic in this regard: Study of towel and Bathroom window reflected in mirror, Lambert’s Bay.

We all know that a used bathroom towel is as unseemly as soiled underwear, and belongs in the soiled-linen basket. But put up on a painter’s canvas, and the painted canvas hung on any wall in a house but the bathroom’s? Almost the same goes for the ephemeral plastic shower-cap in the Bathroom painting. Tradition and custom have it that these objects are unworthy as objects of artistic interest, because they are not even ugly, they are simply uninteresting, especially after being used. Granted, we have overcome the prejudice against the ugly long ago. Rembrandt, amongst others, has cured us. But still, I do not recall such fastidious attention to such utterly banal objects as a used towel and a shower-cap ever in the history of painting (at least in my limited experience). Isn’t Andries aesthetisizing these objects by painting banal things beautifully? Maybe. In an indirect way. The point of these paintings is to understand the way these things are painted. The banal object becomes interesting for the minute way in which a limited palette is used (Andries often uses only three colours and white in his paintings) to build up a three dimensional picture through colour tones. It is by attending to how the painter uses his paint that we become aware of how the object exists in our world. I daresay that through Andries’s painting of a shower-cap or a towel we become awe-struck by the appearance of a mere towel or shower-cap in our world. And Andries’s towel is in a sense a counterpoint to Saskia’s marvelous red hat in Rembrandt’s painting of his wife. But so what? you may ask.

Andries acknowledges his indebtedness to Dutch painters of the Golden Age as far as, apparently, painterly techniques are concerned. He even gives a nod of recognition to a not too faint resemblance of typical still life beauty in Two pumpkins under table and Three quinces and one pomegranate. But his conversation with the past ventures further; for instance, the invocation of the baroque skull as an emblem of the so-called vanitas experience in the face of opulence in Ingrid’s Durban studio, Leonardo and rhino skull and in Rhino skull. However, the rhino skull is not a mere token to remind the viewer (piously or cynically, as in the Baroque) of the transitoriness of human life, but a strong protest against mindless destruction of life as such. In both paintings the rhino skull dominates, it is not an accessory amongst other things for the scene. It is a stark reminder of absence, of things lost. The towel and the shower cap are part of this vocabulary of a sense of absence, loss, the world poached bare but for the mementoes left in fastidious artistic craftsmanship.

The evocation of a sense of desolation occurs in Gouws’s many roomscapes. Some of them are interesting for the reason of elevating cold, mechanical installations (the various paintings of the Laundry in Paris, Metal cabinet Paris) and the uninhabitable spaces of a bathroom (its upper corners, or pressing oneself against a wall next to the mirror cabinet above the wash basin) to objects of artistic, painterly observation of the interplay of colour tones and light on banal surfaces. The artist’s sense of the language of paint redeems these spaces from banality, and one may think a visit to such places may be worthwhile for the express purpose of observing the endless interplay of light and colour on mere surfaces.

I find three of these roomscapes very poignant: Landing Paris 1st and 2nd version and Sun on studio floor. These paintings are about light – a beam of light stretches over the floor of an otherwise semi-dark and empty room, creating geometrical forms with a fascinating interplay of light and shade – almost an abstract painting. Be that as it may, the paintings conjure up at least two other figurative paintings from the past where there is a masterly depiction of light. I think of Rembrandt’s early Artist in the studio, and Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks. The title of a tribute to Hopper by Gail Levin, The Poetry of Solitude, is an apt characterization of these roomscapes. In Hopper’s Nighthawks people sit in a diner at night, surrounded by darkness outside, and the scene speaks of solitude, isolation, people seeking company in a desolate world. Rembrandt’s painting has the artist himself propped up in a corner in a big room; there is a large painter’s easel in the foreground, with the painting turned away from the onlooker. The side of the painting turned to the onlooker is a stripe of radiant light directed at the onlooker. Gouws’s painting with its bright beam of light in a semi-dark room is bereft of people. Is the poetry of solitude wistful, melancholy, bleak?

Let’s look further. These still lifes and roomscapes with their resounding silence are complemented by two other genres: paintings of figures or part of figures, and landscapes.

The human figure does get its due in Gouws’s work. There is the occasional self-portrait (Attempt at an unheroic self-portrait is the unassuming title), depicting the artist in shades of grey and brownish pink, with his back turned to the viewer, not looking at the viewer but into the distance. We do not get a look at his ‘soul’ through his eyes. We wonder about his apparent indifference and loneliness. Two heart rending portrayals of worn feet, two Sleeping apostles covered by what gives the impression of a shroud (apparently the two figures are the artist’s brother-in-law and his son). At least in this exhibition the human figure is emblematic of old age, suffering or frailness. The human condition is one of needing care.

The landscapes are devoid of human figures except for the fact that one is aware of a point of observation – there are traditional landscapes with the long vision from a foreground into a far distance. Large Karoo landscape is a fascinating transfiguration – for want of a better word – of Vermeer’s View of Delft. But note the differences in style and format of the various landscapes. One group is painted with a smooth surface and strong hues of blue and green, the other group is executed with more fluid paint, more sketch-like, with an even more minimalist palette of pastel colours. And then there are two skyscapes. These two are interesting because they do not have a foreground. There is only the top of a mountain, clouds and air. A minimalist palette to the extreme, and intimating a minimalist, even claustrophobic vantage point. It is as if one is looking up to the sky through a small window. The observer is cut off from the world, and all s/he may be seeing, is hues of blue in an empty sky, bordered by what is visible of the edges of mountains. Especially these two paintings suggest the experience of a human being bereft of the world.