20.11.2014 – 17.01.2015
SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
“I was driving along the M7 the other day when, at the side of the highway, I saw a stray dog with a rope around its neck. Poor thing, I thought, there you wander without any inkling of what the future holds. Sooner or later that rope will get entangled on something, and then, inevitably, you will be strangled to death.”
Such was the anecdote with which Johann Louw merrily regaled me. He threw back his head, and laughed the whinnying, over-hearty laugh, the toothy, nervous cackle, whereby he fends off intrusion and the cruel absurdities of life.
“People like us must have the religion of despair… By dint of gazing down into the black pit at one’s feet, one remains calm”, wrote Flaubert. No one has gazed at that black pit as steadfastly as Louw, and what is so invigorating about his charcoal drawings is the unflinching courage with which they confront even the bitterest of truths.
Almost all of Louw’s work pivots around the imminence of death and annihilation. This is an obsession of the artist who has completely internalized the Buddhist tenet that, preparing oneself for death, is the principal goal of life. The Exterminating Angel certainly exacts her toll in the quartet, inspired by morgue shots of the bloated cadavers of men killed by compulsive over-eating, on the final wall of his recent show ‘Gestaltes’.
The artist has always had an affinity for charcoal and included a few small-scale drawings in his exhibitions of paintings, but never has he used it as his sole medium on such an epic scale with such a magisterial technique. A mere sixteen works, some enormous, fill a huge space, in what must be the country’s hugest gallery, the new SMAC, Cape Town which opened last month with alarums, excursions, and the biggest knees-up since the Last Supper. I know. I was there till two.
Essentially charcoal consists of burned wood and bone in a wax binder. Its quiddity as a dead organic material, its blackness and its cinerary associations all equip it ideally to deal with death. It is also far more sombre and forbidding than oil paint, which, in Louw’s hands, achieves an unctuous, buttery sensuality completely at odds with his grim mortuary themes.
In the first work, ‘Figuur in Interieur 1’, a Beckettian wreck of a man, an enfeebled old codger tottering on the brink of the grave, has shambled into a kitchen where he prepares some beverage. The dim light and miasma of gloom suggest neither dusk, nor dawn, but a psychological state of mechanical habit devoid of bright expectations or positive hopes. The scant illumination falls mainly on the tatterdemalion gown, and not the head, hands, legs and feet. The man’s posture is stooped; his back, neck and head, bent; his cheeks, puffy; his gait, shuffling, and his pace, slow and effortful. This brutally accurate record of the ravages of old age and senescence is accompanied by tenderness, and Louw evinces an obvious compassion for his subject’s frailty and impending extinction.
Death is not necessarily posthumous for Louw, who has jettisoned the Renaissance concept of man as the measure of all things, and completely digested contemporary philosophy’s dismissal of the concept of the rational, autonomous self, endowed with individuality, agency and free will. The fumbling old geezer in ‘Figuur in Interieur 1’, ‘11’ and ‘111’ is a mere bundle of reflexes, urges and instincts, a being programmed, rather than determining. There is ‘no ghost in the machine’, to use Koestler’s phrase, and in that sense, he is no sense superior to the copulating and excreting dogs, or dead bodies, so often juxtaposed with the ‘living’ human figures at Louw’s exhibitions. The old buffer goes through the motions, but there is something robotic about his actions, as if he were a brain-dead zombie operating on automatic pilot.
These drawings form part of a sestet constructed as a cinematic sequence. The ensemble looks like a storyboard, and the regular spaces between the images heighten its likeness to a six-frame strip of celluloid. There are hints of a sequential narrative: the old fella makes his drink, and then wanders through a series of rooms before re-emerging in the final drawing.
After I wrote the forgoing, I learned that Louw used his mother as the model for this suite. He chose his own flesh and blood in order to achieve a ruthless lack of sentimentality, and thus emphasize the universality of the truths his art enunciates. The drawings are in no sense portraits. There is no specificity; Louw always inclines toward the generic. As my error proves, even the gender is left undefined. His mother just happened to be the sitter.
The feelings of affection the artist entertains toward the old lady, spill over into the rooms she occupies. It is as if that bed, that chair, that table had been lived with on a daily basis for many years, and, in the course of that, they had become impregnated with the personality of their owner. The interiors are a new departure for Louw who formerly painted rooms void of all contents, whereas here he executes something far more specific, filled with furniture indicative of a certain income group and way of life.
The style combines Expressionist luminary, anatomical and spatial distortions with the intimiste focus on ordinary domestic life we see occasionally in Seurat’s conte crayon drawings. The interiors with their empty beds and chairs resonate the same aching sense of absence that overwhelms us in Van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom at Arles’, ‘Vincent’s Chair with his Pipe’ and ‘Gauguin’s Armchair’, and I suspect this feeling is linked to the drawings’ origins. The series was executed at Louw’s sister’s farm just after a labourer had somehow set fire to his home, and accidentally burned himself to death, and it was this smoke-blackened, blockhouse with its charred furniture that were at the back of Louw’s mind when he painted these interiors which are dark, in all senses of the words. Doors and windows become portals separating the world of life from that of death, and, in ‘Interieur met Bank (Ou Vloer)’, a revenant seems to materialize between the door jambs and dissolve in the light.
Death is inherent in Louw’s draftsmanly technique. He attacks, the paper, and thus the human figure inscribed upon it. Wielding his stick of charcoal like a weapon, he tears violently into the paper, throwing all his weight into the downward slashing movements of his hand, so that the charcoal stick leaves a stubble of tiny raised paper ridges, ravels and flecks. Scooped out of the paper, these show as white, reflect the light, and impart shimmer to the entire drawing. The resultant vertical and slightly diagonal lines vibrate, introducing kinetic excitement into otherwise almost motionless scenes in which wild gestural mark-making displaces naturalist description and draftsmanly linearity.
The paper is made even rougher and tuftier, as the artist draws, then sandpapers what he has drawn away, either entirely, or in part. Then he adds, then he subtracts, repeating the process over and over again until he has built up a richly layered surface. Sandpapering removes the charcoal, breaks the line, and leaves further raised filaments of white paper standing proud of the surface, and catching the light. As a result forms become summary and abbreviated. Line and contour slip out of register and blur, yielding to smudgy masses of lustrous, velvety black that contrast with passages of delicately nuanced grey, evocative of both shade and low light. Finally occasional pure, bright whites flicker and gleam through the darkness. The image accumulates very slowly, and the artist only stops when he strikes the perfect balance between gesture and articulation, abstract mark-making and a coherent anatomical image.
‘Gestaltes’ marks a quantum leap in terms of the rough-hewn perfection of Louw’s style, the greater emotional range, and the absolute authority with which he presents his visual propositions. Suddenly he must be counted as a significant artists in this country, however his uncompromising harshness of vision and expression means he can never aspire to the popularity and wealth in which someone like Kentridge basks.