SMAC Gallery, Stellenbosch
20.02.2016 – 09.04.2016
Many describe, with delight, the dynamics of oil paint. They call it buttery, honey-textured, rich and sensuous. For some it is, at its finest, the medium that enabled the shimmering light of the Impressionists. But in Johann Low’s ‘Loog,’ the butter is rancid, the honey is mucous and the shimmer is corroded. The result is a collection of works where the subject matter is as dark as the technique is illuminating.
There’s a quality to Louw’s work that reminds me of writers like Patrick McGrath, whose decadent and plump prose narrates a barren Gothic plot. Standing up close to Louw’s work is like inspecting an infectious skin condition, but when you instinctively recoil you are confronted by inspiring depictions of flabby, impotent figures, wandering through the ground zero of their soul. A liminal space of paradise irretrievably lost. These figures cannot avoid their mortality and meaninglessness. Both McGrath and Louw convey empathy and disillusionment; they suffer with their subjects.
Mooiplaas, the unsettling backdrop of Dansie op Mooiplaas, is the farm in the Platteland that housed the artist’s studio before, as he puts it, “it became a not-so-mooi-plaas.” He remarks that he enjoys the irony of the name now that the natural beauty has been decimated by the operation of a brick quarry. As benign as the actual space may be, in his work it is a nightmarish swathe of land populated by a solitary nauseous nude. Despite the artist’s assurances to the contrary, I get the sense that something terrible happened here.
In his gory impasto style Louw also renders loping dogs and antique dresses (garments he saw in a museum in Toledo, Italy). The dresses are abandoned husks. Their lifeless poses are mirrored by a cluster of cement-composite figures huddling conspiratorially in a gloomy corner. The sculptures, titled Medea I and Medea II, after the infanticidal Greek sorceress, are evil, weighty hags plagued by elephantiasis.
In the final room of the exhibition are Louw’s pock-marked charcoals. After four rooms of humanity laid bare, these drawings convey a darker message still. His style translates masterfully to the medium of ash and coal. Here are images of snarling dogs locked into dangerous confrontation. The allegory growls: ‘it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there…’ In Konfrontasie you peer through what appears to be a suburban glass door, to watch two dogs facing off. The assailant’s muscular bulk causing his adversary to prostrate before him in fear. The power dynamic is as electric and inevitable as a Highveld thunderstorm.
The title of the show, ‘Loog’, the Afrikaans word for lye (caustic soda), announces Louw’s stripping away of superfluity to expose our raw and hellish existence. The product references the domestic process of cleaning, one of the mundane repetitions of everyday life that sloughs away the soul. I left Louw’s world compelled but shattered; with hollow empathy for his mannequins, apprehension of his animal aggression and pity for his dysfunctional Plattelanders. His works strikes the same chord as the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. A sorrowful visual lament accompanied by dogs snarling somewhere in the darkness.