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.