Paintings by Annari van der Merwe
It is not surprising to learn that Annari has a long history in literature, especially in the editing of texts. Editing is both an exercise in punctiliousness and precision – a kind of disinterested wielding of the razor of Occam – and at the same time a challenge to the creative business of exegesis. The editor needs to have imagination and insight if she is to do justice not just to the letter of the text but perhaps a fortiori its spirit.
I say it is not surprising because even a cursory glance at the body of work on exhibition reveals a delightful and compelling dualism. On the topographical side there is an almost obsessive attention to the minutiae of the source material; fastidious research of textures, hues, atmospheres, and as careful a treatment of the alchemy of oil painting, especially the oracular mysteries of glazing.
On the iconographical side, there is a second dualism: the domestic versus the international. It is a charming side of Annari’s work that on one hand it reaches out very far for some marvelous and exotic locations and then on the other looks no further than the ubiquitous cat, Bijou, and other charming moggies. In the course of generating the ‘international’ pieces, Annari has delved into a huge range of locales, including I. M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (It’s Time) and his Louvre Pyramid (Pyramid), the Open Air Garden of Fine Arts in Kyoto (Suspended), The Chagall Museum in Nice (Looking Back), and some less famous sites such as and some less famous sites such as an informal settlement in Hout Bay on the Cape Peninsula that shows up in Wagters op die mure.
It is an intriguing phenomenon in aesthetics that artefacts, whatever their physical elegance or gravitas, are profoundly affected by a kind of ‘insider knowledge’ in which the viewer is privy to some of the history, convolutions, human interaction, privation, exultation or whatever generative energy is part of the genesis of the piece. Thus, Van Gogh’s Crows over a Cornfield is famously resonant of a poignant slice in the life of the tormented artist. Without the biographical context, the piece might be mistaken as an otherwise unremarkable part of the oeuvre. Sometimes the context is circumstantial, but there is also a range of ways in which the intensity of focus, the idiosyncratic vision of the artist and the history might be suggested or revealed in the work. It doesn’t take a huge amount of sub-text to understand that in Annari’s My Grand Tour paintings, a rich and evocative almanac of experience, recording, cogitating, selecting, refining and ultimately executing has taken place. There is nothing quotidian about the bigger pictures, and the viewer is invited, actually co-opted, into a level of experience that is full of import and portent.
Did I say ‘nothing quotidian’? I did, but of course, there is that darn cat. Nothing more domestic and everyday than that! And it is perhaps this little character that ubiquitously acts as the delicious bathos to what might otherwise present as too solemn, too earnest while simultaneously linking all the works. It seems a pity that the paintings are likely to go to separate homes!
It is the nature of good story-telling that the narrator must beguile and seduce the receiver so that there is a lust for more information, a denouement, that will tie up the loose ends and solve the mystery. In pictures, this is not always a simple task and Annari will have to be the one to vouchsafe the kinds of information that her curious viewers will be wanting. Certainly, each painting has its own particular history and reasons: much can be said regarding the choices made and the processes followed. This will make for a rich excursion into a particularly complex mind.
But for my money, the fascination and the compulsion are more than just acknowledgement of a focused and enriched volition on the part of the artist, but ultimately dependent on the power of the enigmatic – the inexplicable – tenor of these paintings that suggest and provoke and tease and through all this give delight. Without the stern control and professional discipline, the myths could not survive, but without the myths, the discipline must needs be sterile. Aristotle made the elegant suggestion that poiesis (read Art) needs to be a perfect synthesis between mimesis (imitation, discipline, practical sense) and mythos (the Dionysian world of the imagination. Without wanting to sensationalise the matter, I think that Annari’s marvelous journeys through both those worlds have paid off handsomely in this exhibition.
A last word on the Cats. These creatures are popular images in popular art and thus carry something of a burden, being vulnerable to over-sentimentality, and it is true that one or two of Annari’s kitties might appear to be straying into a land of cuteness. However, I would argue that the stern limitations and disciplines that the artist imposes on herself in all her undertakings prevent any embarrassing lapses. Some, indeed, are both revelatory and even metaphorical creatures. They may claw you should you neglect to take them seriously. A long acquaintance with these beasts has taught me to resist the temptation to see them as adorable. That some viewers will, is a response to be welcomed nevertheless.
~ Greg Kerr