Friday, June 1, 2012

Pulling things apart: Jan-Henri Booyens

In the course of a critic’s working life there are always those artworks or exhibitions that you can’t shake off. Your mind keeps wandering back to the work, as if possessed. Sometimes its an unanswered question that propels the fixation. Other times it’s an inexplicable emotional pull. Jan Henri Booyen’s Matt Sparkle, which showed at the now-defunct Premises Gallery in Joburg in 2008, has been one such exhibition. The paintings were bleak and bold, presenting dark and brooding landscapes rendered in a stylised quasi-abstract mode that articulated a kind of future-lessness that was haunting – and seductive.

Over time I realised, however, that my desire to keep returning to his work wasn’t simply because I had fallen under its visual spell but because I done a disservice to the work in my review of it and that it was a forerunner of a new kind of formalism in local art. The main reason for my misreading was because I had encountered Zander Blom’s (solo) work before Booyens’s. I had assumed that as the two artists had been collaborators in the Avant Car Guard collective, their work sprung from the same well. As such, I had read Booyens work through a filter shaped by Blom’s then nihilistic obsession with high modernism and the abstract expressionist vocabulary and in particular, how this movement announced the “end” of painting.
I assumed that Booyens was also preoccupied with painting’s demise. It was only when I perused Blom’s solo exhibition, New Paintings, at Stevenson Joburg late last year that the penny dropped. I finally twigged that Booyens was at a more advanced stage in his practice than Blom, who was now only starting to experiment with form while dispensing with a conceptualist impulse, where the work’s value would no longer  rest  with the ideas underpinning it. Make no mistake, the ideas Blom used to frame the photographs of his early  paintings on the ceiling of his home was ingenious. But as he recently admitted, the ideas and presenting photographs rather than paintings was a way of lessening the risk.
“You can’t hide mistakes in a painting,” he observed.

The most striking aspect of Blom’s exhibition was that despite his fixation with the end of the painting – evoked by a black hole – he still believed it had potential. Booyens had begun to realise this possibility in his 2008 show with his quasi-cubist geo-metric forms – while Blom was still looking down the “black hole” of painting.Of course, you could argue that Blom has been braver in the sense that he isn't trying to find a balance between chaos and order, abstraction and figurative work; he has completely surrendered to the former.

Booyens engagement with futurelessness that was expressed in some of the titles but also in the violence being visited upon the landscapes wasn’t an attempt to engage with the fact that painting couldn’t be advanced but with the Earths’ prospects and perhaps even humanity’s. He revisits this theme in his latest show, Strange Days, which has been showing at Blank Projects in Cape Town. This theme is most obviously expressed in Measuring Myths, Strip Mine and Invade the Invaders – paintings that present landscapes under threat. Invade the Invaders refers to the computer game space invaders. Red arrows hover over a rural landscape.

In Strip Mine, the land has been  gutted; it looks unnatural and artificial with gold and red tones. It’s a pared down and abstract representation of a mine, consisting of tiers of zig-zag strips. As the artist has observed, the painting shares similarities with some of Cecil Skotnes’s work. It has to be said, though, that this is a crude rendition of an abstract modernist vocabulary. Make no mistake, Booyens’ aesthetic is exciting; it’s a kind of pop-abstraction, though the production levels are not at all slick.

The roughness of his rendering speaks of a kind of irreverence for the  vocabulary he uses but there is a degree of carelessness in the brush-strokes in this body of work that was not present before. Paintings such as Protea and Blackout Sunday look better as photographic reproductions. The titles pin down the meaning in many paintings. In this way, the artworks exist on the threshold of meaning and meaninglessness, hovering between states of recognition and chaos.

Booyens is interested in this ambiguous territory – painters tend to be. He teases this idea out most prominently in Strange Times, an abstract work showing floating geometric elements that have come loose from a united body. Booyens is concerned with pulling things apart – forms, mostly.  He embraces this action in quite a different way with paintings such as Batman’s Cave and Swamp, where he has quite literally pulled the surface of the paintings apart;  scratching and destroying it to reveal the underlying painting. The result is a highly textured, dappled surface, organic in appearance, though in the titles Booyens situates them as undesirable locations in the natural world. 

Perhaps he believes that as natural rhythms have been disturbed, things have fallen apart; that a rupture has occurred. In Measuring Myth he presents a break among geometric shapes that recall the parts of an icy glacier. This break between independent, recognisable forms and a seemingly incoherent or unknowable mass is obviously connected to the formal concerns in his art, too. I suppose this is where his interest in form and nature dovetail. It is interesting to think how his quasi abstract mode – though not all the paintings are abstract – serves his interest in the natural world.

Not that Booyens has premeditated how this might occur; he hails from, if he has not led, this new generation of artists that want to make work unfettered by convoluted art-world concepts. In places he revels in this such as a droll title alluding to a meaningless activity  like Passing out on a neighbour’s lawn.
Booyens isn’t an eco-activist; the nihilism, irony and cool detachment that his work possesses implies he would be unwilling to claim that designation. The quasi-abstract syntax ensures that he avoids a didactic stance. His work is far too pessimistic. A striking work dubbed Emergency Exit presents a dark twist; there is no escape from the status quo. - published in The Sunday Independent, May 27, 2012

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