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Painting & Photography

In my first themed #artcrawl I will be taking a look at Jeanne Gaigher's art looking at it from the context of how it deals with the ordinary and the idea of the photograph as a found object. Find out more about these intimate tours here. In this review published in The Cape Times, I explore how her art is centred on consuming images, slowing the pace, for herself, for us.

Jeanne Gaigher’s painterly universe in Weig at Smith Gallery, feels kind of seventies. Tones of orange, green, brown and purple dominate and have done so since her first exhibition, Club, held at this gallery last year. This offbeat, you could even say jarring, palette is what makes her art so distinctive. It also re-asserts her source: photographs, which so often are defined by a colour palette that roots them in time. Not that you can detect her source, she paints over her photographs, covering them almost entirely with blocks of her seventies colour palette.

As such she obscures the image while enhancing it. In this way she distorts reality, turning it into something abstract or surreal, which is just as well because the photographs tend to depict banal scenes that would escape notice. The image on which Man Next to Car is based may have presented a car in a parking lot. At the edge of the work you can make out the steps to the entrance of a building. However, Gaigher has ‘treated’ the image in such a way that a car appears stranded in what could be snow, water – a kind of abstract swathe of light green concealing the actual context. We will never know what the image contained and this is not important for Gaigher is interested in revealing to herself and by proxy, us the viewer, what it doesn’t include.

In other words Gaigher’s method allows her to tease out a sort of invisible reality that photographs can’t relay. In the Man Next to Car it may be the sense of isolation that is experienced in this mundane urban scene. Maybe it is an expression of impending doom. Perhaps it is even a sense of tranquility she wishes to highlight.

Gaigher might be unaware of what she aims to draw out of a photograph. Her approach to painting over images is exploratory, experimental and intuitive – that is what painting offers an artist. Clearly taking photographs is not satisfying enough for Gaigher. How can it be, when our culture has become so documentary-centred with almost everyone of her generation photographing everything they encounter, however, mundane?

She is not resisting this culture, rather, strangely she is embracing it in the sense that her art is centred on consuming images, finding ways of doing so that cannot be played out instantly. As the African author Teju Cole recently observed in reflecting on the impact of Instagram: “we need to read images.” Taking them is easy, reading them is not and may well be the work of artists.

The process of painting over her images allows Gaigher to ‘read them’ mediate on them and draw out the elements that might have compelled the knee-jerk compulsion to photograph them in the first place. The act of photographing, image taking, is too fast to allow her to engage with the image itself or what might be interesting in it. Of course, you have to consider that in painting over these images, she doesn’t only re-consume them or ‘read’ them but she alters them to such a degree that they become something else altogether. But is that not the process of making art, altering reality in such as way as to see it anew?

Yet at the same time, what is hugely interesting is that no matter which images she tackles, somehow they all end up appearing similar – the palette and her painterly technique ensure this. As such she affirms ‘her eye’ and the consistency of her gaze is given an aesthetic expression. Put simply she reminds us that we are seeing the world through her eyes. This level of obvious subjectivity is not visually articulated in photographs – we never see the photographer and due to this forget about their presence and the impact their worldview has on how the image is constructed or reality is surveyed and edited.

Gaigher is not only concerned with photography, but painting too and arriving at abstraction – the mode du jour. Abstraction is like the bungee-jumping genre of painting –some supports, literal or metaphorical need to be in place to allow the artist to plunge into free form. The photographs provide this – the structure is set, yet she can destroy it where and when she chooses to conceal the image.

Some of the works on the exhibition are clearly figurative such as Car I and Living Room Set III, where they represent recognisable items. However, it is when she loosens those reality anchors that her expression is most rewarding such as in Resevoir Girl or Burning Carpet, where she allows us to ‘feel’ the image rather than see it. – sponsored text. - first published in the Cape Times, 24 October, 2016

  • Weig by Jeanne Gaigher shows at Smith Gallery, Cape Town until November 19.


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