WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a veteran South African painter encounters the work of Japanese Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) through her paintbrush? In short, a little madness. Don’t expect slavish copies of the wave that has slipped into commercial use ad nauseum, when you visit the latest exhibition of paintings by Bronwen Findlay at the Everard Read Gallery. Instead, you can look forward to something raw and fresh, witty and beautiful that offers you a soupçon of Hokusai in a Findlay rubric. And it will lighten your day.
The art world since time immemorial, is replete with borrowings and pastiches, the articulation of other people’s ideas and expressions. It’s how we roll. But it was Belgian-born surrealist painting René Magritte who in the late 1920s put a kind of a cap on the whole morass of copying and representing, with his work The Treachery of Images. This very bold and clear painting of a pipe is more popularly known as Ceci N’est Une Pipe, which is the legend painted into the work. Not a pipe? Of course not: it’s a painting of a pipe.
In Findlay’s body of new work, which does indeed, include a reference to Hokusai’s Great Wave, we get something similar. But it doesn’t embrace as one-liner a status as the Magritte. The key word is “Painting” in the exhibition’s title. These are not Hokusais. They’re not pictures of Hokusais. They’re not pretending to be them, nor are they copying his style. But they take flight from the representational and compositional ideas presented by Hokusai and something extraordinary happens.
Look at the large work called Kingfishers and Roman Doves. A blue bird messily swoops toward the painting’s edge, feathers akimbo. As you look at him, you can feel the energy in his gesture, the way in which his wings magick with a mix of musculature and paint to lift the bulk of his body in flight. In Agapanthus II, the variegated head of an agapanthus is tousled against a gold leaf ground. You recognise the architecture of the plant, can feel the wind in its petals, and in Findlay’s signature loosely descriptive line work.
Findlay is a master of composition and this body of work serves to corroborate that status. Playing with a mix of filigreed lines, subtleties upon subtleties, texture and perceptual rendition, she creates abstracted landscapes which skirt decorative energy with celebrations of Japanese woodcut aesthetic. She takes risks and breaks rules and in doing so she surprises you with lilies and an agapanthus head, with a bird skittering almost too close to the painting’s edge for comfort, but actually, he’s in the best possible place.
Her work is not sharp edged. Her grounds are not flawlessly laid. But this is not essential. In this body of big paintings and small, one of the nested spaces in the carefully curated overall venue that is Everard Read Gallery, there are gems that will make you believe in the worthiness of tomorrow.
- Painting Hokusai and Other Worlds by Bronwen Findlay is at the Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg until March 31. Call 011 788 4805.