Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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Hentie van der Merwe

Hentie van der Merwe
Found image for invitation, 2003

Van der Merwe and Nel at the Goodman Gallery
by Brenton Maart

Hentie van der Merwe and Luan Nel, at first glance, seem like strange bedfellows for a collaborative show. The formal visual language employed by each artist differs as vastly as do the concepts behind their work. On closer inspection, however, their joint show 'Still life' reveals interesting links between the two artists and their work.

Literally the term means painting or drawing of inanimate objects, and that is what is on show. Exploring the early Dutch genre in title and in work, the artists, both Afrikaans, provide very specific interpretations.

A further link between the two bodies of work is the rendition of their subject matter that, in antithesis to the title, bristles. The objects painted by van der Merwe and Nel are not still. Sometimes dangerously disjunctive as with van der Merwe, and sometimes in a poetic invocation of memory as with Nel, the works succeed in animating the inanimate, within the genre of still life.

Van der Merwe's Camouflage, generated at his recent artist-in-residency in Amsterdam, is installed in one bulging corner of the Goodman. In some cases stretching from floor to ceiling, the gingham wallpaper provides a symmetrical yet disturbing surface for the further optical whack of these works on paper.

Van der Merwe has meditatively and painstakingly constructed grids with watercolour or ink on paper. Red and white rows intersect with red and white columns - and similarly with black - to form large sheets of graph paper. Rendered only somewhat individual by almost insignificant pencil numbers along the edges, the rows and columns form a visually disturbing base latticework.

Van der Merwe has now, for a number of years, interrogated the grid and its meanings in South Africa. His 1997 'Archival Installation' at the Generator Art Space, and his 1999 'Portraits from a Grid', at the Gertrude Posel Gallery, both investigated the grid as a visual metaphor for classification systems.

Recently extending this interest to international consumerism, van der Merwe made use of the symmetrical patterning of military ribbons mirrored with a Benetton-styled gridded portrait installation - 'United colours' - at the 2002 BIG Torino Biennale.

Kathryn Smith describes the artist's gridded style as, "minimal but not minimalist´┐Ż informed by a pared down aesthetic." And it is in this new show where van der Merwe's obsession with grids comes fully to the fore. Both formally balanced and jarring, aligned and disjointed, the painted gingham provides a surface from which known insignias emerge. The artist has disguised animal-symbols culled from the world of consumerist trademarks and that of global politics: the eagle used by big world nations, the sporting brand puma, animal trademarks of car manufacturers, each visually camouflaged in its background gingham.

In these works, the interface between the plane surface and the emerging subject becomes then an enclosed plotting on the graph. The subjects become the faultlines. And the icons the artist has chosen become plotted maps of events or processes. They show a change of two variables and provide analyses of the insidiousness of consumer branding.

Luan Nel, occupying most of the space at the Goodman, shows an extensive body of oils and watercolours on paper and canvas. Nel's subjects are items from his experiences, items he knows, intimately at least by proximity. Toy soldiers and models of homes, cocktail umbrellas and magazine clippings become animations of memory.

Many of Nel's paintings show just one item, tiny compared to the vast space that surrounds his subjects. The framing seems generous at first, an open expanse that surrounds the items the artist has found. Then later the space begins to take on a subjectivity of its own. When painted, the area around the object condenses into an animate agent in the work. The viewer approaches his oil on canvas toy buildings, for example, from seemingly up high; a view from a spiralling-down plane.

Even when the space is not painted, for example in his illustration of the sad wedding party saga, the work is animated by emotion. Here again, the view is one of grave spiralling towards the target: we spy down from our warplane to where the bride walks off the picture as the groom looks back forlornly.

The invitation to the joint show took the form of a card with two postcards enclosed: Van der Merwe's Found image for invitation (2003) shows a corner of a gingham picnic napkin'; Nel's Rose (2002) shows a detail of that work. At first glance, it seems like we're in for a picnic. In the show, however, the picnic promising fun and laughter is not all it's promised to be. We see that the invitation images are details of works that play unnervingly with space. The vast open freedom of the anticipated picnic gives way to a reality of both restrictive isolation and insidious global force.

Opening: noon, Saturday, August 2
Closing: August 23.