Star man: John Meyer’s Odysseus will be shown for the first time at the Strauss & Co auction. Its cinematic style and seemingly peaceful subject matter belie large existential questions. Picture: SUPPLIED
Star man: John Meyer’s Odysseus will be shown for the first time at the Strauss & Co auction. Its cinematic style and seemingly peaceful subject matter belie large existential questions. Picture: SUPPLIED

John Meyer has reached the enviable place artists fantasise about: his paintings sell before he has created them, before they are even a twinkle in his eye. He is a little annoyed about this because it has come so late in his life – he is 75 years old.

"I would have preferred for this to have happened 20 years ago. I was living a different life back then. At times I was very unhappy because I felt rejected, sidelined and ignored by the art world," he says.

He can’t fully account for his lack of popularity. He puts it down to being a figurative artist at a time when conceptualism was popular and now more recently when abstraction became the mode de jour.

He is spirited and sprightly and keeps fit by standing in his cavernous studio in Kenilworth, Cape Town, painting all day.

He became aware that his work was in demand when he sold a number of the 15 planned canvases for a series of paintings dubbed Lost in the Dust for an eponymous exhibition in 2014 for Everard Read’s Circa gallery.

Dealing with the complex notion of complicity during the Anglo-Boer war, the Lost in the Dust series did not disappoint. Meyer’s gift for melding realism and theatrical devices with a cinematic quality had new purpose and value when it was combined with this pressing political theme.

The series struck a chord. It was exhibited internationally, in London and Edinburgh during the city’s annual arts festival and Meyer found himself on a roll. He rarely exhibits; he has been too busy keeping up with the demand for his paintings.

"If someone called me up now and asked me to put on an exhibition, I couldn’t do it," Meyer says.

Unusually, one of the artist’s paintings is due to come into the public realm before it gets sold. Odysseus, as the painting is titled, will go under the hammer at Strauss & Co’s October 16 Auction in Cape Town. It is a rare Meyer painting — it has never been seen (or sold) before.

Paintings of this scale and quality tend to find their way into the hands of buyers who rarely part with them, he says.

Odysseus is unusual too because it is not part of a narrative series, historical or otherwise. Inspired by the visual rhetoric particular to cinematography, Meyer tends to paint sequential scenes, as if plotting out his own film.

"Everything I do is very filmic, even the landscapes. When you look at how directors treat landscapes you can see it is all doctored," the painter says.

"I am very admiring of the way this kind of imagery is created. I am playing visual tricks like movie makers. It is almost subliminal. Artists are manipulators. They always have been; take the Sistine Chapel."

'Journey' offers old and new themes, implying the life and death, natural and man-made binaries that haunt contemporary culture as it marches closer towards artificial intelligence and other technological advances

As movies have beginnings and endings, so too must his paintings. This is easier to achieve with a sequential series, less so in a stand-alone work such as Odysseus.

Meyer suggests that he has generated this arc via two symbols that stand out in this night-sky scene. A baobab tree reaching towards the sky signifies a primordial state before humankind populated the earth, while on the other side of the vast canvas is a bright light "that many have mistaken for a shooting star. It refers to a rocket", transporting humankind to other places in the universe, marking their exit from the earth.

As the title suggests, this "journey" is inspired by Homer’s character in Odyssey. It offers old and new themes, implying the life and death, natural and man-made binaries that haunt contemporary culture as it marches closer towards artificial intelligence and other technological advances that disconnect us from our ingrained nature and corporeal limits.

Meyer doesn’t offer his take on the politics of progress. He poses a daunting question of the sort that staring into a night sky would prompt.

He sugar-coats its gravity via a cinematic blockbuster vocabulary and by couching it in a seemingly peaceful landscape. The sense of balance and order work at implying that humankind’s extinction or development on Earth is part of a natural cycle.

The work is estimated to fetch about R2m – the sort of figure rarely realised by works produced by contemporary living artists other than William Kentridge or Marlene Dumas.

Meyer gives little away about the price tag Everard Read attaches to his work, but suggests the auction estimate is far below its usual value.

Odysseus doesn’t just pose existential quandaries but, at this auction, will determine Meyer’s standing in the art market. Not that he appears concerned about the outcome. He’s reached the point in his career now that he believes he is a success. "Belief in art is sustained by money," he says.

• Strauss & Co’s October 16 auction, which includes works by Dumas and Kentridge, will take place at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, Cape Town.

Please sign in or register to comment.