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Paintings and Prints for Doctors and Dentists

Anton Kannemeyer at STEVENSON in Johannesburg

By Matthew Partridge
31 May - 29 June. 0 Comment(s)
Swartbergpas

Anton Kannemeyer
Swartbergpas, 2012. pen and ink on paper 21 x 29.5cm.

‘So do you really work in a cubicle?’

‘I don’t have three kids’ – he has two: Emil and Anna – ‘and I don’t work in a cubicle’ says Anton Kannemeyer, referring to a drawing from his sketchbook titled Then I Wake Up… where he reclines on a psychologist's couch recounting his dreams to a bald quack who studiously takes notes.
Kannemeyer laughs, ‘I’m more interested in getting an idea across’.

‘Let’s get the famous stuff out the way first,’ I interject.

‘Well, I told this story to the other guy, maybe you read it? No? Okay I’ll repeat it.’

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Doosdronk was our song’ – his and Conrad Botes’ – ‘while we were at this comic festival in Reunion, it was like the Bitterkomix song’, he says with irreverence. ‘Then funny thing, Ninja phoned me for the video’. Because of the deal that fell through between Interscope Records and SA rap/rave sensation Die Antwoord (of which Ninja is a part), the video has yet to be made because the American label still owns the rights to the song.

By the sounds of things Anton Kannemeyer is a busy man. ‘I would’ve liked more to be on the show’, he says at one point, ‘but actually I didn’t have time to get enough out.’

‘My father died on Christmas day’, he says almost out the blue, ‘so that’s been taking up my time’. His father had just completed an important biography on J.M. Coetzee, soon to be released by his publishers in Holland. It’s not the only Dutch connection to this show, 'Paintings and Prints for Doctors and Dentists'. The two reproductions from his sketchbook of his two children follow in the Dutch tradition of making a plate to commemorate the details of a new life coming into the world. ‘Claudette has one’, he says referring to the heritage of his wife, artist Claudette Schreuders.

‘Ja, when your work is autobiographical you seem to be a lot gentler to the female form’, I (cheekily) observe. He avoids this provocation. ‘I’ve been moving to more autobiographical material, but really there hasn’t been enough time.’ He and his father weren’t on speaking terms. ‘He had a huge library, and with the biography, all the while I had to finish this show’.

The pace and confusion of this turbulent period is evident in the show, the hanging of which initially seems a little disparate. However, on reflection this is an unfair assessment: what emerges are the competing narratives seen in the various elements that the show presents. On the one hand there is the distinctively personal series of portraits of the artist’s family taken from his sketchbook, which provide a counterpoint to the quiet, meditative landscapes of the Swartberg. With two drawings in pen and ink, another in acrylic and pencil and the rest of the series in etchings, these works reveal the range of Kannemeyer’s draughtsmanship.

‘You almost get lost in all the lines,’ a fellow gallery-goer remarked to me during my last visit to the show.

The lines are indeed numerous, but it is what they do that is so intriguing; Kannemeyer’s rendering of light shadow gives the landscape a very real tactility. The self-portraits, which in part trade in the masochistic humour of Kannemeyer’s alter ego Joe Dog (a pseudonym which translates phonetically from Afrikaans as ‘you dog’), are balanced by a more tender touch where the artist chooses his family as his subject matter.

‘I was surprised that they chose to put the portrait of Claudette separate from Antjie and Ninja’, he says referring to the three smaller portraits on the show.

‘I generally like to distance myself from the work during the hanging process,’ he remarks of the curatorial space he gives the gallery in the hanging process. Here the gallery hand is clearly visible with the various sections of the show being arranged into distinct sections, each along different narrative lines.

Two portraits, of Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog and of Ninja, and another of Claudette, also sit in the series but hang separately, framing a series of smaller ink and acrylic works on paper. In keeping with the literary theme that the show presents, these smaller works are of writers that have featured in varying degrees in the artist’s life. Cormac McCarthy, JD Salinger and Lewis Carroll all feature together with the sole South African being a rather disquieting portrait of Andre P. Brink looking wryly to one side whilst lasciviously cradling a much younger woman.

‘Having done comics for so long, pen and ink is still the most comfortable medium for me...’ he says, ‘it’s the one I’m best at. During the late ’80s,’ Kannemeyer explains, ‘I fell in love with Rotring pens, but it takes skill to draw with them’. Evidencing this are the process marks in the margins of his drawings, which have a more mechanical purpose than their initial aesthetic value. ‘I’m set on getting an interesting line, but the problem with drawing with these technical pens is that they clog up and you have to get it going again’, he says, like a mechanic explaining a engine.

‘I’m a big Blake fan,’ he tells me when I mention a quotation included in the print of Anna, his firstborn, taken from one of his workbooks, ‘mostly of his Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ he qualifies.

Speaking of the only two pen and ink drawings without any colour on the show, the Swartbergpas and Kompasberg, Kannemeyer says that he never intended to show the latter, which was done in 2002. From an entirely different body of work, the intriguing and organic detail in this specific work is the beginnings of an invoice made out to Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town at a time when he still used to hand-write all his own paperwork.

Yet what is more notable about this work is the variation of mark-making which is a freer and less contained than those of the Swartbergpas. The sense of movement is more gestural and sweeping, more frenetic and generous. By contrast, the control that is displayed in Swartbergpas is staggering. The white of the page is crisp and absolutely clean, whereas the areas of shadow are modelled with a precision that borders on the obsessive.

It is not this obsession that gives the works their seductive quality; rather it is the way that the earth flows and glides around the page. The level of observation, rather than aspiring to a level of photographic realism, leaves a distinctly drawn mark whose surface nevertheless has a particular and intimate relationship with its subject matter.

This textured fidelity to surface allows the viewer to feel the world through that drawn mark. Instead of relying on comic book-style illustration, Kannemeyer has taken the next leap in communicating his visual vocabulary. In pen and ink he has mastered a vision of the world in black and white that communicates all the poetry found in the expressive line in a succinct lexicon that is entirely his own.