131 A GALLERY
26.04 - 08.06.2021
Is it possible to paint the soul? We believe we can, are reminded we cannot. Snagged between faith, reason, and feeling, we hedge our bets, err on the side of faith, or irony, knowing that neither is ever wholly ours. We remain anxious.
It is heartening, however, to learn that anxiety—the defining condition of our age—is not always a bad thing: “Anxiety is not merely a problem or an affliction for which philosophy offers a solution,” notes Samir Chopra. Rather, “anxiety and philosophy are intimately related because enquiry—the asking of questions, the seeking to dispel uncertainty—is how humans respond to this philosophical anxiety.” The mind—what we think or believe—is an integral part of the whole. We cannot live without anxiety, but neither do we live because of it. Despite being pricked and probed by matters great and small and the many niggling doubts which afflict us—do I dare to eat a peach?—we venture onward. “The asking of questions, the seeking to dispel uncertainty—is how humans respond to … anxiety.” We may hold fast to a “desire to know” or presume this to be the fundament of human ‘nature’, but as Chopra reassuringly reminds us, a “philosophical being” is an “anxious being.” Anxiety “is an essential human disposition that leads us to enquire into the great, unsolvable mysteries that confront us.” Is it possible to paint the soul?
In his first South African solo at 131 A Gallery, titled ‘Against A Narrow Heart’, Christiaan Conradie offers a unique wager. He is not enthralled by masks or essences, nor does he dispute the veracity of either proposition. Instead, Conradie steps outside of the complex which exercises, haunts, and confounds us. If he believes in neither the inner life of a painted face, nor its impossibility, then what, if anything, does he adhere to? Is there a shaping ground in his portraits? It’s hard to tell. His faces and bodies are certainly present. They are meticulously and solidly crafted choreographies of flesh and bone. Yet Conradie refuses to believe that he has represented or evoked a being. He says that his portraits are not proven records of lives lived. They do not tell us the truth of the being, but neither do they dispute this possibility. Why? Because Conradie understands the health of anxiety—the desire to know what we cannot know.
Matthew Collings speaks of “the inner life of painting,” which he distinguishes from both subject matter and the artist’s biography. “What Modernism teaches us,” he writes, is “that the use the painting has in the end, if the painting is important, is to do with its identity as a painting, and not the surrogate it offers through imagery, history, documentation and recording and so on, of various other experiences.” Collings’ distinctions may seem too stark. Is it possible to disentangle the matter of paint from its embodied content? Surely not. And yet, he has a point.
We often forget to engage with matter as matter. In the case of portraiture, this is concernedly the case, because what immediately enthralls us is a painting’s metaphoric power: the vision it dissimulates as it conceals the processes involved in achieving a likeness. However, in Conradie’s paintings we encounter a hiccup. He provides a mirror, but he also tampers with it. Two distinct techniques occur, realism and expressionism. The first is mimetic, devoted to transparency; the second is concerned with the materiality of paint. It is this double-bind which offsets and unsettles the viewer. Conradie heightens a tension between painterly technique and human vision. He has spent many years trying to master realistic portraiture, depth of field across a flat plane. But he has also found himself refusing the ruses of a flattened transparency. Why?
The answer, I think, lies in the artist’s reliance upon a productive anxiety. It is because he cannot know the world, and because he sees painting as both propositional and intuitive, that he finds himself caught between the shifting tectonic plates of realism and expressionism. It is vital to note that realism, an objective record of a perceived world, is no truer than subjective and formal experimentation. In this regard, Collings’s view—inherited through Modernism—that the importance of a painting depends, primarily, upon its “identity as a painting and not the surrogate it offers through imagery”, is crucial.
Conradie mashes contrasting traditions, but he does not confuse them. His figures are realistic; their contexts comparatively less so. The environments his figures occupy—and which occupies them—are inspired by Anselm Kiefer’s thickly layered miasmic surfaces. Kiefer’s post-war German melancholy, however, is only one ingredient in a greater complex. For if one encounters a northern European melancholia in Conradie’s paintings, one also encounters a southern sunniness.
In his exquisite little book on Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig reminds us of the great German philosopher’s wager: “We need the south at any price, bright, playful, halcyon and tender tones”. How else will we overcome anxiety? It is by stepping Southward that Nietzsche becomes “de-Germanized, de-Christianized”, that his “passion seethes for the fresh rapture of the tropical, ‘the African’”. Craving “sunburn rather than sunlight, a clarity … cuts cruelly into him”. Something akin is afoot when I look at a Conradie painting. They possess a high drama, they are spasmodic, sometimes even ecstatic, and, after Zweig, “unflagging” in their craving “for total transformation through the most subtle stimulation of the senses”. This tension is fundamental in Conradie’s paintings. He asks us to consider that we are bound to limits, but that we are also free to overcome them. It is because of his productive anxiety that he refuses to succumb to custom and is always open to unbidden promise; as inclined to faith as he is to doubt – mercurial.
If Conradie’s portraits never quite comport themselves, it is because they are excessive, inclined to overreach. This is because Conradie doubts constraint, prefers accident and surprise, because he is delinquent, deliquescent, fascinated by the liquidity of things. We see a man waist deep, divided between a roiling red flood and a placid pale green sky. He is tethered to both worlds. The trails of a red torrent fall from his animated elbows, the bearded head is lifted upwards. A striped, ginger cat is perched on his shoulder. His familiar? Companion? What are we to make of this scene? To my mind’s eye, it captures the prevailing tension in Conradie’s paintings: sea and sky and man between, softness and roughness, the pacific and wild, north and south. Most of all, it is the moment where these worlds merge—always infinitesimally so, because Conradie refuses to fudge distinctions—that we encounter the painting’s defining moment, distinguished by a productive anxiety, an unwillingness – finally – to take sides, a desire to keep everything in play. If Conradie’s distinctive sensibility is hyperborean – a lover of the sun who comes from the north – it is because reason and knowledge must be given up in the name of an unfathomable grace.
There is a caveat: Conradie is a white African. South African born. But he is also, after JM Coetzee, not yet African. He is not wholly aligned with the world that he has inherited or the sensibility he enshrines. In this regard, he echoes Nietzsche’s unsettled and unresolved desire. It is this irresolution which his paintings manifest. The discordance between realism and expressionism, sobriety and play, calm and intemperance, is the measure of their core dilemma. If his paintings are experiments in portraiture—life-painting, even, and especially when they refuse this sanctified belief—it is because the painter cannot determine the condition for their making. Instead, they give us what I think we need most in these uncertain times— hesitance, doubt, and a preparedness to confront the unknown. Nothing is settled.
That Conradie chooses to predominantly paint older white men may seem provocative. Is his world antediluvian, out of step with the currency of the age? Yes, and no. In refusing the predictive iconography of today’s art world, he asks us to reconsider the values we uphold and rethink the rights of the human more inclusively. Contra the Coen brothers, Conradie has created a country for old white men. The world they inhabit is singularly his own. It is his story of painting—of time, history, existence, inexistence, immediacy, superannuation. For what Conradie tells us is that nothing can ever be so easily disavowed or discarded. If anything, anxiety can be a profound antidote to certainty, and the terrible absolutism that dogs it. Sink into vegetal mounds, straddle rainbows, enjoy life’s sump … the precious dignities which mortality affords … the infinite wonder that surpasses the void we forever fail to fill.