A proverb is a piece of common wisdom, passed down through generations, using familiar images and metaphors. Proverbs are often funny, showing up human nature in all its foolishness.
This idea came to me as I was walking in the forest near my house in Germany. There are lots of little streams which catch the light and reflect the sky in the darkness of damp, rotting leaves, and it’s very quiet. Sometimes, in the distance, I catch sight of a deer and stand very still, and after a few seconds it will suddenly take fright and crash away. I’ve walked over that little bridge thousands of times, it’s in the woods just below my house. An old man from the village used to maintain it, but he has died and it’s now derelict, so you have to jump across. My walks are circular. I feel the landscape there as enclosing and self-sufficient, like the setting for a fable. I liked the fairy-tale feeling of a never-ending stream. It was quite hard to force the landscape into the shape I wanted and apply light that would hold it together, just. There is a frozen, restful feeling to it. At the same time, it occupies that exact line between gravitas and kitsch, I think many of my paintings do. There is a comforting lack of commitment in that. I sometimes think we take art so seriously that we have forgotten how to enjoy it.
I was brought up religious, until I rejected the idea of a god at the age of 12. But those stories are part of me. This painting has a bit of a desperate, end-of-days feel, like Noah and the ark, except there is no Noah and there are only flying creatures. At first I was just going to paint a flock of ibises, but then I thought it could still be real, and somehow in this series I want the images to just tip over that boundary into definitely not real. I imagine a rustle and flap of wings as they all rush frantically on in one direction. I photographed the boat at a harbour but I’ve simplified it, so that it’s more like a toy. There’s no person, just the empty boat cabin – it’s as if humans don’t exist anymore. No water, no setting- it is floating on a white void. It’s perhaps a bit frightening, or melancholy, but then the boat is so wonderfully red, and it’s hopefully satisfying to look at.
Proverbs are not about new ideas. They are as old as the hills. For me, painting is not about trying to say something new. It’s about offering a platter of familiar treats, about entertaining, and maybe about tweaking at the heart. I am always so struck by how beauty has no principles. It will attach itself to anything. Beauty is the palliative, the sweetener – it allows me not to say anything much.
Beauty, pathos, sweetness, indulgence. A painting is a mirage, flung onto the infinite space of the canvas, formed through thousands of brush strokes like the beats of a conductor’s baton. A lesson never learned, a piece of familiarity, a meaning on the tip of the tongue like a word you can’t remember. A proverb, a chunk of common ground where we can all set foot.
Floating on a bed of white like a kind of swing or hammock of leaves, slung between two trees, this is the ultimate territory, an exquisite resting place. A painting is really just another kind of home and this painting is a home within a home, a space within a space. The figure is you or me looking, it’s not the painted subject. She just holds a position, marks a place for us. Her delicate vulnerability and strength could be ours, if we let it. We all have ageing in us, and we are all terrified. This painting was all about the softness, the light and colours of her skin against that ethereal white. The blue cushion is a little piece of Italian frippery. Is it possible to paint an old woman without it being about an old woman? I hope so.
I started with the two figures, who happen to be my older son and his girlfriend. I’ve painted him many times since he was a baby, but it was the first time I have painted her, and in her face I wanted to get that sense of 15th century Flemish portraits, the simple, light-filled features, and serene, slightly distant gaze. But when I just had the two figures, it wasn’t enough. I felt bored. Who cares about another painting of a young couple on cleverly painted sheets. The emoji cushions seemed so fantastically foul, and yet visually completely satisfying. It was scary when I plunged in and put that first bit of bright yellow on the canvas. But it rescued the painting. I like the contrast between the emoji expressions and the models’ subtle, human faces. It’s terrible.
My subject matter is all locally sourced, easily accessible material for moulding a world. The author Kate Atkinson said “Writing for me is quite a plastic form, a kind of mental sculpture…it acquires its character and depth as it goes along.” Painting is a bit like that for me, a kind of malleable space that slowly becomes dense and rich and sweet, like a fruit cake.
Here the space is very closed in and there are diagonals and angles, bits of repetitive patterns. I’ve really tilted the table plane towards the viewer. The painting is held in a strange sort of rigid balance, pushing and pulling the space. I had to change the angle of the dogs’ basket quite a bit and then make bits of the dogs up…Painting is like setting and then solving a puzzle, and this one has a particularly mathematical feel. The dogs and figurine and flower are bits of alleviation, sweet nothings, offerings to a wounded spirit (we are all wounded spirits, aren’t we?). The beach paradise on the ironing board is a further space within the confines of this place. It’s really a parody of escape, but an image like that is so powerful, it’s still seductive, even though it’s funny. I often feel like a painting only just succeeds. I have lots of really bad ideas, which I seriously consider along the way. For example, in this painting I thought of putting a sliding security gate across the white space. That would have been a disaster.
There’s something confounding and impenetrable about open-ended realism. It just is. That is its strength and its gift. Realism is essentially the failure to hold and grasp the world around us. It is an attempt to control the uncontrollable, to make a space in which to have a bit of purchase on the endlessly slipping, slipping world. It doesn’t and can’t succeed. We keep falling.
This painting is the sigh of relief in the series, it’s all pleasure, no holds barred. I always feel like animals reflect us in a most uncomfortable way, showing up our pretensions, and therefore it’s ever so slightly ridiculous, of course. The title in my mind as I worked on it was “A Meeting of the Animals”. It’s got a children’s book feel. But it’s also a thousand paintings that have gone before, of fields and light and woods, the pastoral dream, the countryside as paradise, the lush grass, the enclosing hills, the interesting tree covered in bright green moss. I really have no shame left. I wonder if there is a place for such paintings.
I like the idea of art as a proverb, because a proverb delivers with ease. It’s immediate and eternal, it’s amusing, it makes you look at yourself with a laugh of embarrassed recognition. A sermon may also deliver, but you may have to try hard to get something from it, and master your own boredom and the pain of sitting on that hard pew, unless the priest is a gifted raconteur and philosopher. I am trying hard not to produce sermons, though I often feel I just end up with nothing at all. That’s the risk one must take.
Proverbs are universal, and although paintings cannot be entirely universal, as they are always attached to their context, I tend not to pursue the personal in my paintings. In this series I have painted the same people as in previous series, perhaps because it is not about them at all. They are just people enacting people. Life is so very painful and full of struggle. If I dived into my own experience of pain in my work I would never emerge again. For me painting is about touching lightly, lovingly, on the painful places, and offering a soothing, holding space, with a bit of humour, a light slap, a prod and a caress. I am not the first person to point out that joy can only exist in the context of pain. This lightness of touch, this lack of the personal, can feel very insubstantial, but I don’t mind that. I get relief from continuing in the face of that emptiness, in fact the whole point is to draw a beautiful veil across the emptiness.
The word in my mind as I first had an idea for this painting was “hero”. The young, brave heart gazing up, in the Romantic tradition. And it really is like that. This is my younger son – the first time he’s modelled for me again, after a five year break. I understand why one wouldn’t want to, but I’m so glad he let me. I like the pond device because it reflects another reality beyond the picture. The plane is outrageous, unashamedly dramatic and crass. Would there be a better medium for an image like this? Maybe an animation, I don’t know. For me the plane becomes quite irrelevant, and it is the grass, and leaves, and bits of nature where my mind wanders. And the mouse.
When I look at this one the word “collusion” come to mind. The baboons are including us in their world, we’re perched up here with them while the evening city roars on and the sunset sky does its thing. Detritus, trash, an absurdly red flower, and these big-leaved, lush plants, all contribute to a vaguely dystopian mood, but then the baboons are so humorous, gazing out satirically as if to point out that it’s not entirely clear who’s looking and who’s being looked at. They seem to embody a proverb of some kind, if one could only understand it. The view is the view from where I live. In lockdown the view became smaller and smaller, it was as if nothing existed around any of the corners. The world really is a backdrop for our doings.
I actually changed the baboon on the left, in the original he looked a bit complacent and stolid, and I put him in a more wistful, engaging pose. I like how the sticks on the ground are the same shape as the baboon’s legs and tail, there are lots of resonances of shapes in this one. The binoculars have orange lenses like another pair of baboon eyes. It’s amazing how colour can hold everything together, even though the different bits don’t really make sense at all.
Aloes are a very South African plant, they grow easily and we are all used to them. I like how common they are, and the way their shapes contort across the white space. There’s lots of nature in my work, but often with bits of human insertions, which to me are a kind of violence, full of hubris.
The red balloon is one of those insertions – a piece of obscenity, but just so pleasing to look at. I often have the thought that putting something like that in a painting should be a small crime, perhaps punishable with a fine. The two little sunbirds valiantly fight their corner, in the face of all this nonsense. And the gold ribbon winds in and out of the space, so that it’s almost like the painting is a present.
Rooster and Jet
This was the first painting I started for this exhibition. It informed the rest – the beginning always sets a certain trajectory like a flight path. I get my references from all over the place. The pond was from the German forest, though in the end I made it a different shape. The plants around it are plants on the roadside near where I live in Cape Town. I photographed the rooster in the Seychelles a long time ago. It doesn’t matter where it’s from at all, and I even forget myself, because the elements take on a new identity in the painting.
I am lazy and greedy, and I don’t want to have to try when I look at art. I want my enjoyment to be given to me on a golden, intricate platter, so that I can just lavish love on it and revel in it. I want the illusion of possession. I want the art to lift me lightly over the threshold of my fears, overwhelm me with its beauty and pathos, amuse me with its indulgences. It can be mysterious, but not dull. A dreary mystery is a contradiction in terms.
Dog and Ball
When I look at a lot of realist painting it’s as if suddenly I’m trapped in a 1950’s magazine discussing ideas about good taste. The word “now” is a dangerous one to use, as the moment you say it, it already feels dated. But anyway, I think in order for me to be a realist painter now, I must embrace a fundamental understanding: realism is uncertainty in the guise of certainty. And certainty is like an infinite point on a graph, the closer you get, the more you feel its inaccessibility.
This is such a hashtag picture, except it isn’t really. The dog is remote, dignified in spite of its delicious white curls and coiffed fringe. The slasto is a piece of South Africa. It’s all empty, with a dramatic sky and no people. And then there’s this insanely yellow ball. There was nothing more to add.
Sheep and Fireflies
In the end, my hope is that a person looking at one of my paintings will will feel happier, not more sad, closer, not more isolated. I hope they will be relieved from the pressure of their anxieties for a brief moment. The world is frightening and beautiful. We artists are fools. I think my job as a foolish artist is to entertain and give joy in the best way I can.
Three sheep live at the bottom of the valley by my house in Germany. They have immense dignity and self-possession, it seems like thousands of years of wisdom gleam from their eyes. And yet it’s absurd, not something one puts in a serious painting. But I am serious. I love everything about this sheep. The fireflies came later, for a bit of magic. If you can, why not? I believe less and less in restraint. We should go all out. It’s a jostling, dog-eat-dog world out there. But this sheep is just beautiful, and it doesn’t care. To quote the writer Saki, “It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life”.