Johann Louw: Der Abschied
SMAC Gallery is pleased to present Der Abschied, a solo exhibition of new charcoal drawings and paintings by pre-eminent South African painter, Johann Louw. Der Abschied is Louw’s fourth solo exhibition in Johannesburg and his sixth with the gallery.
Louw’s paintings are an intense response to notions of identity —testaments to a particular psychological spirit of place and time. Occupying a somewhat paradoxical space, Louw’s ambiguous and vulnerable figures, set within non-descript and seemingly forsaken landscapes, create a sense of pervading uneasiness.
To understand Der Abschied, one must first understand the title’s reference, engendered by the work of the famous late Romantic composer and conductor, Gustav Mahler. In July 1907, a doctor summoned to tend to Mahler’s ailing wife would also examine the composer, discovering the fatal heart condition that killed him less than four years later. Composing the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) in the shadow of this terrible blow, Mahler’s perhaps most well-known piece was “permeated with the bitter taste of mortality”, as observed by musicologist Deryck Cooke. The colossal finale of the symphony, known as Der Abschied (The Farewell) – with its dirge-like passages, central funeral-march episode, and dark C-minor tonality – has long been understood as a more or less autobiographical farewell to life, the forbearing reconciliation with an ecstatic, quintessentially romantic death.
Der Abschied is thus a meditation on mortality, manifested through Louw’s characteristically visceral canvases, as well as a new series of charcoal drawings. His masterful handling of his chosen materials draws the viewer in, demanding an emotive engagement.
By exploring the corporeal nature of paint, Louw molds and sculpts it to resemble human flesh as closely as painterly possible, his brush appearing to search beneath the skin for traces of affect; reshaping, obliterating, forming. Charcoal too is handled heavily by Louw, frantically sandpapering the surface and rubbing the sticks of black carbon and ash residue down to nibs that litter the floor of his studio; veiling the anthropomorphic detail of his baboons and hyenas in pools of deeply-etched shadow.
Many of Louw’s paintings appear to depict a period of limbo, an eerily quiet and deserted moment in time, hovering in the realm between the living and the dead, occupying the bright flash of green before twilight, when no one is looking. In Bobbejaan Teen Muur / Figure, a baboon slinks past three figures, obscured from their view by a low wall. The ape peers forward through the picture plane, directly addressing the viewer in a way uncharacteristic of Louw’s figures. In many of Louw’s portraits, the sitters turn their faces away from the viewer, perhaps choosing not to look at the grim world that Louw has wrought for them.
The baboon (and his relative, the chimpanzee) reappears throughout the exhibition, its wiry-haired head, painted in varying detail, appearing again and again on a large salon-style wall, bedecked in verdant Hunter’s Green. The hyena too is a recurring figure, a veritable icon of death and decay, outdone only by the vulture. There is an ongoing relationship between Louw’s figures – human and animal – a similarity in posture, in expression, a slight shrinking of the shoulders, a turning of the head.
In its careful studies of abandoned domestic scenes, seismically charged landscapes, and animals caught at the moment when one would usually look away, Der Abschied articulates a fresh epistemology of mortality, whereby individual identity becomes subsumed in nature’s eternal cycles.
Johann Louw was born in Belville, Cape Town, in 1965 and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts Degree from Stellenbosch University in 1992. He has held exhibitions in South Africa and internationally. In 2007, the Sanlam Art Collection presented a mid-career retrospective as a tribute to Louw’s extensive career over the past two decades. This exhibition toured the country in 2008 and 2009 and was accompanied by a publication on the artist.
Der Abschied runs until January 13, 2018, at SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa.
October 18, 2021
October 12, 2021