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                                                             The Neo-Expressionists

John-Michael Meterlerkamp and Stompie Selibe

 

Ashraf Jamal

What immediately strikes us … is that the adjective new is used rather liberally. People speak of the Neuwe Wilde (New Savages, Neo-Expressionists)…. Indeed, the inflationary use of the word new in connection with artistic trends does not correspond at all to current terminology. It never actually appears on its own but only ever as a prefix (Neo-) or as an adjective qualifying a trend which already exists. New tendencies are not really all that new, nor are they really meant to be.                                                                                                                   – Klaus Honnef

 

Klaus Honnef’s cautionary reminder of the pitfalls that come with naming art is worth remembering. Art cannot be so easily framed. And yet our Linnean tendency to name the world persists. In the South African context, the art dealer, Candice Berman, has taken it upon herself to name what she sees as a daring re-emergence and fusion of abstraction and the figurative. This emergence, which she sees in the paintings of John-Michael Meterlerkamp and Stompie Selibi, is one which she perceives as a healthy and long-overdue counter to the dominant fixation with art as a weapon of struggle, a medium for ideology – in short, statement art.

Berman’s interest in what she calls Neo-Expressionism stems from a preferred passion for art which plumbs the enigmatic depths of being. For Berman the human cannot be reduced to a categorical imperative. Rather, the human must be understood in all its contradictory complexity. And in this regard art plays a vital role precisely because it refuses to be self-explanatory. With its roots in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Neo-Expressionism chooses not to reflect a world we might consensually verify but to express a world which we can unthinkingly intuit. Ruthlessly subjective, dramatically emotional, hyperbolically excessive, this art form appeals to our most suppressed yearning, be it psychological, sexual, spiritual, or primitive and raw.

This focus, which enshrines the subconscious and celebrates viscera, results in painting which electrifies the canvas. Anything but sedate, or measured and temperate, it is a mode of painting – inspired too by Fauvism – which asks us to experience not only the event thrust before us but also the very materiality of its expression. This thrusting together of psychological content and form, like the grinding overlay of tectonic plates, results in art which is at once remotely enigmatic yet in-your-face. One senses the raw innards of a tempestuous mind-heart-soul hiding in plain sight.

John-Michael Metelerkamp and Stompie Selibe are exemplary in this regard. However, if their paintings are profoundly aware of abjection, they are also filled with whimsy. It is this mix, this mash-up of conflicted and conflicting drives which express the drama of painting – for it is never only the psychic and emotional realms which Metelerkamp and Selibe trigger, but also the very painterliness of these states.

If for Klaus Honnef ‘new states are not really all that new, nor are they really meant to be’, this is because novelty is not merely an exchangeable commodity but the expression of a haunted and inexpressible soul – a speaking of the unspeakable. And in South Africa, Metelerkamp and Selibi’s charged arena, it is precisely the need to speak the unspeakable, and refuse the declamatory staple which has informed the country’s ‘resistance art’ movement, which finds its acute expression in Neo-Expressionism.

In this form and medium of art-making that which is given voice are the singularities which make us human. One approaches a painting by Metelerkamp or Selibe as though one were encountering a familiar stranger, for the intimacies their paintings offer are at once recognisable yet surprisingly obtuse. One does not recognise oneself in that encounter; rather, one recognises the other of oneself – one’s doppelganger; one’s more remote being.

It is the psychological complexity of Neo-Expressionism, when combined a daring technical flare, which, for Berman, fosters a greater fluidity, rawness, and honesty in art-making. And if, as a movement, Neo-Expressionism signals a return to honesty in South African art, it is because it refuses a literal-minded and opportunistic fixation upon a received oppression. Never reactive, Neo-Expressionism asks us to think and feel the complexity of being human. Its painterly verve is not only a matter of formal significance. Rather, Neo-Expressionism’ very painterliness – its refusal to hide its materiality – is also the surest marker of its libertine and libertarian drive.

Neo-Expressionism, in other words, is the art of freedom rather than bondage. Which is why, for Berman, it is the art form which will restore to art its sacred, and profane, purpose and occupation.

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