John Meyer has reached that 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 outcome, because it has come so late in his life – he is seventy-five.
“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 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. As a result he eschews both turns in art and the art world (they rejected him first). He is spirited and spritely. He keeps fit by standing in his cavernous Kenilworth studio 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 complicated notion of complicity during wartime, the Boer war, the Lost in the Dust series did not disappoint. Meyer’s gift for melding realism with 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 would go on to be exhibited internationally, in London and Edinburgh (during the city’s annual arts festival) and Meyer found himself on a bit of 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,” he says.
Unusually, one of Meyer’s paintings is due to come into the public realm before it gets sold. Odysseus as it 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. I am very admiring of the way that this kind of imagery is created. I am playing visual tricks like moviemakers. It is almost subliminal. Artists are manipulators. They always have been; take the Sistine Chapel.”
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 like Odysseus.
Meyer suggests he has generated this arc via two symbols that stand out in this night sky scene. A Baobab tree that reaches out 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/death, natural/manmade binaries that haunt contemporary culture as it marches closer towards Artificial Intelligence and other technological advances that (further) disconnect us from our ingrained nature and corporeal limits. Meyer doesn’t offer us his take on the politics of progress. He poses a daunting question of the sort that staring into a night sky would prompt. He sugarcoats its gravity via his cinematic-block-buster vocabulary and couching it in a seemingly peaceful-looking landscape. The sense of balance, order and the setting itself all work at implying that humankind’s extinction or development is part of a natural cycle.
The work was estimated to fetch around R2-million – 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 attach to his work, however, he suggests that the auction figure is way below what it usually fetches behind closed doors.
In this way Odysseus doesn’t just pose existential quandaries but, in this auction it will, determine Meyer’s standing in the art market. Not that Meyer appears concerned about the outcome. He’s reached the point in his career now that he has believes he is a success.
“Belief in art is sustained by money,” he says. A edited version of this story was First published in Business Day