Mongezi Ncaphayi: Which Way is East?
Mongezi Ncaphayi’s latest body of work – produced for his solo exhibition, Which Way is East? – registers a fresh iteration in what is becoming the young painter/printmaker’s unfolding search for the sublime. This new selection of work comprises a series of vast horizontal vistas of abstract formulations; works on paper that grow and extend the pictorial vocabulary of his previous works; works that seem to notably privilege his interest in the art of painting over the medium of print-making.
Ncaphayi’s new paintings employ rich, dynamic, spreading expanses of light, colour and marked planes on paper. The work presents us with a kind of boundless energy and limitless space that speaks to an artist bent on crafting a cartography towards the profound – pictorial maps to the sublime in an age of trivial joys and the politics of popular bruising.
If we think of cartography as a science or aesthetic practice that builds on the premise that corporeal reality or its imagined variant can be modelled to communicate spatial information, then Ncaphayi is in the business of teaching us how to navigate, illustrating the nature of its affective force. His work points to his interest in harnessing the power of abstract painted forms and jazz music, along with their capacity to speak to the grand and awe-inspiring world within man. The two forms share a focus on rhythm, tone, and willed intensity as potent carriers of meaning. Abstraction in painting provides him with abundant precedence in his apparent pursuit of something deeper than the everyday.
As Robert Rosenblum famously observed, in the works of English Romanticist painter William Turner and others, the sublime “aims at nothing short of God’s full power, upheaving rock, sky, cloud, sun, moon, stars and sea in the primal act. With its torrential description of molten paths of energy, it locates [the viewer] on a near-hysterical brink of sublime chaos… A brink that is again reached when we stand before a perpetuum mobile of a Jackson Pollock, whose gyrating labyrinths re-create in the metaphorical language of abstraction the superhuman turbulence depicted more literally in Turner [et al].”
Ncaphayi’s search for sublimity, on the other hand, points us to the often-turbulent interior life of the mind and heart. In a human-centred way, Ncaphayi turns from the aforementioned pantheism toward a kind of ‘paint-theism’, in the sense that he centres painterliness in the service of his faithful search for a grand, redeeming meaning.
The 34-year-old artist’s work does not register the sublime with regards to grand, wanton energy, but rather a will to an elegant, calculated navigation of man’s awesome interiority. Ncaphayi’s work plunges his viewers into a spatial infinity that requires a kind of measured surrender. It is the same kind of thoughtful, searching submission to the mystery we find in the jazz record he marshals to name this exhibition – Which Way Is East. Recorded in January 2001, the album is a result of a musical conversation between masterful saxophonist, Charles Lloyd, and his lifelong friend, sagacious shaman drummer, Billy Higgins, who was learning how to embrace his imminent death following a long battle with cancer. He passed away five months later, in May 2001. The hallowed music they make together beautifully matches Lloyd’s sublime melodic styling with Higgins’ high-powered rhythmic formulations. It issues with refreshing, spontaneous ventures as the duet enters into some of the most intimate musical conversations in the history of recorded music. They are as tender and energetic as a river and, at times, as wide as the panoramic blue yonder.
Ncaphayi seems to have eavesdropped well. His listening has resulted in paintings that consist of expansive coloured voids and washes, rhythmically varied with tone and light values; the variations and mutations of intensity, translucency, and opacity occur on the picture’s extensive plane at intervals that resist predictability. The other apparent registrars of a plot or meter come from a rhythm of lines and other marks of complementary colour that chart the implied boundlessness. There’s the suggestion of something akin to the ever-perennial struggle between intuition and reason.
It’s clear that the washes of colour – which function as the basis for the galaxy of the ultimate work – are created employing random splashes of wet paint. Their clear, unpredictable shape and texture are a metaphor for chance, which is a vital ingredient in Ncaphayi’s process. This centrality of process in the art-making method speaks to his jazz sensibility too; an artistic willingness to forego the safety of tested pictorial solutions for the risky business of the intuitive search, employed by the jazz improviser.
As a competent saxophone player, Ncaphayi’s creative ventures into the realm of music permit him to answer questions of pictorial composition with a jazz man’s improvisational dexterity. In jazz, to improvise is not merely to make things up as one goes along, but to be tested to reach into the more profound and inner regions of one’s consciousness with the least mitigation of rehearsed reason. It is to be challenged to be elegant and unguarded at once.
Where our waking minds mind fail us in the search for methods of navigating life’s often raging, tumultuous, Turner-esque visions, Ncaphayi’s work points to a disciplined voyage into our profound inner vastness. It challenges the viewer to trust in the mythic, musical order of improvisation in order to find the most sublime manifestation of human vitality: elegance.
Which Way is East? runs until October 7, 2017, at SMAC Gallery in Cape Town.
April 19, 2021
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