The ineffable immediacy of Salley’s paintings

Dancing. A painting by Rael Jero Salley. Photograph courtesy Gallery Momo.

Dancing. A painting by Rael Jero Salley. Photograph courtesy Gallery Momo.

There’s a glimmer of brush marks, a frisson of lines drawn and redrawn over one another, a glimpse of rapid yet deep engagement between artist, subject and canvas that you access in being in the presence of this exhibition of close to 40 works – the first solo of University of Cape Town-based painting lecturer Raèl Jero Salley, at this gallery. And those nuances of the nurturing into completion of these highly competent, uplifting and deeply sober works contain an element of energy which draws you in with a clarity of focus that will haunt you.

Portraits, figure students and curious sculptural pieces evocative of the mysterious clay heads found near Lydenburg, which are estimated to date back to 500BCE fill the space. These powerful terracotta and acrylic pieces, which offer an approximation of a human head, present an understanding of a kind of sympathetic magic from which the paintings glance, with invisible sparks of narrative energy permeating the space.

The paintings may be understood to fit into a series of frequently used rubrics: the compositions are conventional, as are the poses. Are they people the artist knows personally? Situations that are meaningful to him? Possibly, but whether they are or not doesn’t affect your ability to read them, and to resonate with them, as you glance into their painted eyes and allow your own eyes to wander and meander over the rich yet plain surface of the works.

Largely monochromatic, these paintings slot with a great sense of wisdom into time worn traditions where couples danced in a ballroom, and when men wore tuxedos and moral values were upheld. But Salley’s approach is not crudely romantic, old fashioned or prudish. There’s a painting of a young woman taking a selfie, as there are dynamic images of boxers and nudes. It is the energetic and astute brush marks that are this exhibition’s greatest and most successful drawcard.

Yes, there is an explanation in the gallery’s press release as to what the exhibition is about and why it is called Present, and indeed, there’s a level of engagement with black society and a reflection on the beautiful dignity of black South Africans, and there are comments about freedom and autonomy and the gaps between the past and the future, but more than anything, these are painter’s paintings, giving you access into the sensual relationship between the viscosity of oil paint and the supple resist of the canvas.

You might see mention of Salley’s exhibition in the print or electronic media. Indeed, one of them illustrates this review. But in looking at it, you must know that however beautiful his paintings seem in reproduction, they are beggared by the electronic nature of the reproduction and the bland pixellated perfection which dulls their fire: These astonishingly real paintings need to be seen in the flesh and adored for what they are.

  • Present, a solo exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Raèl Jero Salley is on show at Gallery Momo in Parktown North, Johannesburg until August 3.

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