Barend de Wet
1956 – 2017
On the 18th of March, Barend de Wet passed away in a motor vehicle accident. The devastating news brought to the fore an artist who, while being pervasive in the artworld for nearly four decades, was half myth, often on the the sidelines and impossible to categorize. De Wet saw little difference between art and life, and his often humorous, sometimes bizarre but always compelling oeuvre reflects on this.
In many ways, de Wet’s mythology preceded him almost entirely. Everyone had a Barend story to tell: Countless tales of questionable naturism. His resignation from the artworld in 1996. The David Bowie incident. The time his god sculpture was removed in Plettenberg Bay. The time he modeled for Issey Miyake. Yo-yos. Arbour pun tattoos. And of course, one would be hard pressed to cite a Michaelis Lunch Time Lecture more notorious than the one where de Wet live tattooed Andrew Lamprecht.
Obscured by this mythology is a surprisingly accomplished body of work, remarkably diverse and at the same time idiosyncratically cohesive. While somewhat of a Jack-of-all-trades, De Wet was certainly not a master of none, as mastery of his current infatuation – be it knitting, yo-yoing, beekeeping or tattooing – was a defining characteristic of his output. ‘The apparent ease with which he moves between practices is deceptive,’ Kathryn Smith noted in her acclaimed 2010 monograph on de Wet, ‘Despite the intrinsically conceptual drive behind his work, much of it is hand-made utilising learned skills, regardless of the intuitive way De Wet seems to absorb these skills into his technical lexicon. He is clear about discovering the form and motivation for a work through a deep immersion in process.’ It is really because of the wholehearted gusto with which de Wet committed to his various endeavours that something as fundamentally silly as ‘art disguised as pasta’ actually worked. Later works like the witty DIY Barend de Wet Sculpture Kit feel almost like an intrinsic response to Christian Nerf’s commentary on de Wet’s 2012 ‘Maximalism’ exhibition, suggesting that: ‘The works that come from Barend de Wet have often lead to viewers saying “My child could do that”. (Mr and Mrs de Wet are obviously very proud that that child is their child.)’
While it’s easy to suggest that de Wet’s work hung solely on the Cult of Barend, it’s worth noting the marked reduction of new performative hobbies taken on in recent years. In their place, a return to the kind of materiality which defined his early Atelier-winning sculptural work quietly snuck back in. His acrylic wool abstracts were a case in point, moving through the coy self-consciousness of objects made to look like art and insincere objects with insincere titles. De Wet’s recent black-light-tinged installation Opera, White Bread and Methylated Spirits exuded an immersive and introspective bent with more than a hint of the socio-political.
There was something poignant about the display of past exhibition posters which accompanied what will now be de Wet’s final solo exhibition ‘Black, White & Everything In-Between’ at SMAC Gallery last year. While this is obviously a retroactive reading, the roundup spanning back to de Wet’s earliest days had a strong feel of a retrospective and placed into context the genealogy of themes which came to a head in that unexpectedly sombre and introspective exhibition. As much as his artistic work was defined by art = life = art, the latter phase of de Wet’s career was beginning to lean towards the second side of that equation.
His wit, charm, genuine interest in people and unwavering dedication to doing his thing will be sorely missed.
In memoriam, Kathryn Smith has kindly shared the video below with us (courtesy of serialworks, camera by Sebastian Voigt):