Nostalgia with a cool head: Karin Preller’s Stilled Lives

Ella's Doll (2015) oil on canvas, by Karin Preller. Photograph courtesy Lizamore & Associates.

Ella’s Doll (2015) oil on canvas, by Karin Preller. Photograph courtesy Lizamore & Associates.

Arguably, Karin Preller is at this moment one of South Africa’s most collectible artists. She’s firmly in a mid-career trajectory, her work is uniformly exceptional and her prices are not (yet) skyrocketing. Also, her pieces are about a heady mix of skill, nostalgia and beauty. It never allows itself to teeter too far into either camp, though and yields an utterly haunting approach. In the miasma of sham, drudgery and oft one-liner conceptual ideas that contemporary art has become notorious for, Preller’s work holds its own. And you can look at it every day.

Having worked with the painterly possibilities suggested by old family snaps for the last several years, Preller approaches the blatant nostalgia of her subject matter with a cool head. As a result her images skirt universality – she doesn’t allow the specificity of her own baby pictures from the 1960s to overshadow the ethos her paintings embrace. Drawing from deeply personal roots, the works are never self-indulgent or self-congratulatory.

So there’s a blurring of the ineffable ether that comprises memory, shifting her memories into yours. The typically harsh South African sun and the way in which photographs age play into the visual poems she casts around her own history. And because you are a person in the world, yours as well. You look at these paintings of her childhood neighbourhood in Montgomery Park, and from far, they look visually tight, embracing the time and space in which she was raised. Step closer to the work and the specificity of those memories dissolve into glorious brush marks.

This exhibition is about more than just often endearingly imperfect family photographs. It’s about sisters. It’s about little girls’ dolls. And it’s about Preller stretching her skills to bravely go where she hasn’t yet.

Stilled Lives is an unpicking of the value invested in things and how they interface with memories. There’s an almost ghoulish nature in some of these portraits of playthings from Preller’s own past. But are they portraits, or still lives? Preller challenges the genre of still life, keeping her approach fluid enough to embrace the memento mori values of the tradition, and tight enough to remain compelling and fresh art.

The exhibition is inestimably enhanced by a body of charcoal drawings which again glance at the clumsiness of the photographic discipline in the hands of everyman: photography in the 1960s was light years from the sophisticated technology everyone has today on their cell phones, and the happy accidents of composition reflect delightfully on the past.

Preller’s approach is not delightful in any easy or recognisable capacity, however. These are works which do not pretend to be photographs.  Breathtakingly quiet, they offer an astute and direct thoughtfulness that reverberates with integrity in this beautiful and generous gallery space.

  • Karin Preller’s exhibition Stilled Lives is at Lizamore and Associates Art Gallery, 155 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until September 26. Call 011-880-8802 or visit

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