Roelof Louw - 'Made for the USA' at the Bell-Roberts Art Gallery
by Sue Williamson
Fortunate indeed is the artist whose focus, once distant from his audience, is brought into sharp relief through a twist of fate. Fortunate that his work is suddenly startlingly relevant; fortunate that he cannot be accused of opportunism and jumping on the bandwagon. Such an artist is Roelof Louw, who some three years ago showed shaped canvases at the Hänel Gallery painted in variations of the stars and stripes of the American flag.
His theme then seemed not so much an expression of any particular anti-American feeling. Rather, it read to this viewer as a comment on the difficulties of being the strongest, richest kid on the world block, with a culture both desired and reviled by all the other kids, damned if it intervened clumsily in the affairs of others, damned if it held back.
Last Friday, for a very short run indeed, Louw put up a series of seven new shaped canvases based on the American flag. In 'Made for USA', the flags have become larger. The surfaces are more textured, richer, and the addition of glitter to the paint has added a jewelled sparkle to the red and blue. These surfaces have been desecrated, however, by what looks like splattered diarrhoea in camouflage colours of khaki and green. The flags themselves have been twisted and folded into shapes into which the viewer may read a variety of associations. I would imagine if these were shown in the US at the present time, when large chain stores have actually sold out of flags so fervent is the desire of Americans to demonstrate their patriotism, they would receive an extremely mixed reception.
For the artist, however, the works are also making a personal statement about his own feelings. Louw himself has this to say: "If I were to describe the nature of my art, I'd say it's low-life upgraded to high kitsch. I can't say why I work with certain objects. I don't choose them, they choose me. This or that object obsesses me, takes hold of my mind, looms large in my imagination, until I do something about it.
"I physically act on an object to find out what it means to me. It's elementary. In the process the image of the object keeps changing, and so do my responses. This goes on until some emotional state I didn't want to know about reveals itself, just sticks."
If you have not already seen Louw's arresting and highly finished flag works you will have missed them, but a catalogue is available at the gallery.
Bell-Roberts Art Gallery, 199 Loop Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1100
Fax: (021) 423 3135
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm