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Vermaak | Entertainment > Visueel | Visual > Artikels | Articles > Opening address for the exhibition Johann Louw: A mid-career retrospective

Opening address for the exhibition Johann Louw: A mid-career retrospective

Stefan Hundt - 2009-05-06

Click here for more information on the exhibition.

Johann Louw
(Foto: Naomi Bruwer)
15 April 2009 – Sasol Art Museum – University of Stellenbosch

A decade or so ago the death of painting was on everyone’s lips in the art world. Digital, performance and installation art were the new frontiers that South African artists would traverse in returning to the international world of art production. And for the past few years these art “forms” have come dominate the contemporary art scene in acknowledged commercial and non-commercial art spaces throughout the country.

For instance, production of photographic work rendered in the form of digital printing has become the norm for many emerging and established artists. Much of this production is, in fact, little more than the episodic documentation of artists’ performances where the viewer is to a large degree expected to buy into the notion that the concept is somehow embodied in the still iconic image. These images are to such a degree over-determined and freighted with meaning resident beyond the materiality of the object that one begins to ponder the necessity for the existence of the image at all. In many instances the image is in fact just an aide de memoir. Once the viewer has achieved the conceptual leap of faith into the intellectualisation of the process, which concludes with the presentation by the artist of the image, there remains no real purpose for its existence.

It therefore comes as no surprise that much art history writing today is presented imageless and that much of what is presented in contemporary art galleries as significant artwork seems little more than remnants symbolic of thoughts, notions and actions undertaken by the artist - not necessarily the producer - over a period of time. The persistent presence of this type of work is underpinned by theoretical justifications that are grounded in what has commonly been described as the “Institutional Theory of Art”. Presented simplistically (I hope you will excuse my simplification) the theory posits a sociological explanation for the phenomenon of art works that are indistinguishable from “everyday” objects. Thus what determines that a specific object is designated a work of art is not its appearance, or for that matter its existence, but rather that it is designated as such by the principal participants and institutions of art that make up the artworld. The artist is – because he/she/it is recognised as such by other artists, curators and critics. The artwork is - because it is collected by the art museum, validated by the curator and celebrated by the art historian.

What this theory has done, is present us with a neat explanation and tool for the designation and production of art anywhere where the requisite artworld and its institutions exist. It does not, however, present us with any tools to engage with the work of art in a meaningful way that makes sense of its existence and engages the senses and psyche, or broadly speaking the “experience”, of the artwork. I am not wishing to debunk the theory, but merely highlight its limitations and the consequences of its use.

The consequences of this theory's pervasive presence in art institutions locally can be viewed in almost every art school and contemporary art gallery. Speaking from a personal perspective the experience is often little more than a blip of enlightenment that passes through the brain and dissipates into a feeling of emptiness and futility.

In this institutionalised artworld the presence of painting, although declared dead, is still present, and when practised as an “art” remains a vital, relevant and meaningful practice. Johann Louw’s work is exemplary of this vitality. Engaging with paint as a particular historical substance, where its materiality operates metaphorically, symbolically as well tactilely, Johann’s paintings present a plenitude of possible experiences that evolve meaningfully in the mind and body of the viewer. These experiences are enriching and, as John Dewey may put it, define the human as vital living, thinking creature.

Johann Louw in his own words:

Of importance: the sense of paint and the preverbal directness that the experience of paint affords the painter. It is only from the experience of chaos that authentic language-making can be drawn and the medium of paint functions as such a portal – to an interior space where cultural and societal restraints are erased – and it is in this ambiguity of sensual abundance, sensual emptiness, that visual language – the process of signification – is accomplished.

These propositions provide an alternative perspective and point of departure for the understanding/experiencing of art that is rich in the possibility for emergence of meaning as opposed to the dull nihilism of institutional thinking.

Johann Louw, among a few now much older painters, has been able to sustain the practice of painting as art at a significant level that affirms it pre-eminence in the Western tradition of art-making. Please enjoy this.

This exhibition of paintings spans a period of more than 20 years and provides a view of an artist who has enjoyed some recognition and success, but who still deserves to be fully appreciated. For me as a curator it has been a privilege and important learning opportunity to be able to view the oeuvre of an artist. Although not complete, the exhibition provides insight and from this one can develop an informed perspective on the growth and potential development still to come. There are few artists of which I and other curators of my generation can state that we know their work.

It is apt that this exhibition finds a host at the University of Stellenbosch as, after all, it was at this institution that Johann Louw expanded his horizons and honed his abilities. The university can justifiably be proud that such an artist developed from the base it provided. And should the university be in any doubt about the role that the fine arts should play in its intellectual pursuits I would like to quote Dewey:

Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the union of sense, need, impulse and action characteristic of the live creature. The intervention of consciousness adds regulation, power of selection and re-disposition. Thus it varies the arts in ways without end. But its intervention also leads in time to the idea of art as a conscious idea – the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of humanity.

I hereby declare the exhibition officially open.


Stefan Hundt
Curator: Sanlam Art Collection