Past life: Geel Stoel en Voet is among the Johann Louw works on show at the Smac Gallery. Picture: SUPPLIED
Past life: Geel Stoel en Voet is among the Johann Louw works on show at the Smac Gallery. Picture: SUPPLIED

Der Abschied (The Farewell) an exhibition by artist Johann Louw on show at the Smac Gallery in Johannesburg, is a dramatised production.

It feels more like an installation than average white-cube presentations. There are heavy green velvet curtains at the entrance to the main space; Mahler’s music fills the gallery; there is a salon-style hanging and a combination of odd objects placed among several of the artworks.

It’s over the top and unnecessarily complex. There’s a hilarity about the drapes, dusty old furniture and taxidermy juxtaposed with the art.

Louw is an established South African artist painting in a style comparable to that of Lucian Freud, the British artist known for his grotesque nude portraits.

The paintings in this show are dominated by distorted figures of humans and animals beautifully rendered on canvas. They bring to mind dark psychological explorations around existential themes.

Textural and lively, seen in Bobbejaan aan die Verbykom (2017) or Bobbejaan op Paneel (2017), his work captures the motion of his subjects and the essence of their personalities.

In Der Abschied, Louw has a simian obsession, the baboon as his subject in many of the works. It is an interesting choice, considering he is a portraitist.

It leads viewers to read the baboons as engaged, and as sitters, in paintings such as Klein Profiel (2017) or Bobbejaan Portret Terugskouend (2017).

In others, such as Angelus or Bobbejaan teen muur/Figure (2017), the baboons take on a monstrous animal quality and it’s hard to reconcile how familiar (or human) others may have seemed. Anyone who has ever been near a large baboon will agree that they are terrifying.

All the animals in this exhibition allude directly to death and its place in the human psyche. The theme is overt with Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which is central to the exhibit.

The title of the exhibition, Der Abschied, is taken from the name of the symphony’s finale. Something of a modern requiem, the music sets the scene for the macabre vibe.

Many of his subjects are disembodied pieces of a sitter, or unengaged in the scene they’re depicted in, like in Gietsel/Kop (2017) and Paneel met Galgstruktuur. This turns viewers into voyeurs, intruders in nightmarish Dantean scenes evoking a sense of dread and dystopia.

There is something depressing about an old chair or a couch out of context. Geel Stoel en Voet, a portrait of a dilapidated yellow armchair and a plaster foot, appears to represent a life lived in a past space. Outdated, overaged and tired, old furniture evokes death and loss.

An installation of old furniture in the exhibition space emanates neglected spaces
and an emptiness brought on by dire circumstances.

Louw plays heavily on the traditions of vanitas and memento mori (motifs in art used to evoke mortality), while breaking from them almost completely aesthetically.

He foregoes the realism and smooth painted surfaces, the shiny, ripe beauty of Golden Age Dutch painting, which seems to have held its sway in his practice, leaving a residue of the unpalatable and inevitable decay that haunts the living.

Louw’s portraits and landscapes break with contemporary visual and thematic conventions by challenging the landscapes and sitters he selects. A soft armchair can be the focus, or a hyena is personified. Stylistically, his expressive impasto work, thickly applied paint, differs from his peers.

The charcoal drawings are a stylistic continuation of his body of work and are appealing aesthetically. A drawing such as Groot Hiëna is incredibly dark and almost overworked in some areas, lending it a feeling, again, of obsession.

The drawings are energetic, engaging, some with little difference in texture between subject and background, but achieving visually interesting effects using worked erasure.

Louw is exploring a sense of loss and unenthusiastic pessimism in his portraits. The instances of solo pack animals without their fellows is lonely, and it evokes a powerlessness through their isolation.

The word "limbo" aptly describes Louw’s morbid scenes and his waiting figures. He may be exploring his identity as a white, Afrikaans man — all things that are consistently challenged and reframed.

Even without the Mahler, Louw’s exhibition is still operatic. It’s simultaneously alluring and all a bit too much.

But that is what we have come to expect from him — excitement, dread, death, existential questioning and oddity. Louw’s exhibition will draw viewers into his alternate universe, which is darkly delightful in that way that humans hate to find themselves enjoying, but simultaneously cannot resist.

• Der Abschied shows at Smac Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until January 13.

Please sign in or register to comment.