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Ashraf Jamal :: Primordial

BEASTLY

In Pauline Gutter’s world there is no reason why one should separate Man from Beast, other than narcissism, or vainglory. It is Reason, misguidedly deployed, which codes blood, and makes monsters of men. It was G.W.F. Hegel who notoriously declared Africa, after the pyramids, the barbaric domain of madness and unreason, unfit for civilized men – a cynical pretext, no doubt, to legitimate white rule on a putatively ‘dark continent’. It took another German, with infinitely greater feeling, to remind us that such overweening hubris is bullshit. In his final hate mail, Contra Wagner, Nietzsche championed Bizet as the greater ‘African’ artist. What this great misunderstood philosopher enshrined was the vitality of the human, and its inextricable connection to the greater chain of being. In his astonishing monograph on the German philosopher, more psychodrama than critical commentary, Stefan Zweig explains Nietzsche’s deep distrust of ‘malodorous Judaism’, and Christianity, which ‘crushed and stifled sensuality … causing moral paralysis in what was once a genuine life force’. For Nietzsche, the problem is deeper still, it is Socratic, it is Greek. His loathing of Greek sculpture stems from its absence of vitality, its narcissistic looping back to the idealised body and face, and the supposedly perfected Reason which informed it.

For the South African sculptor, Bruce Arnott, the preferential treatment given to an entitled Western art history stems from ‘the dead hand of Classical formalism’ which failed to grasp a deeper primordial vitality. There is a reason for this failure – Western art, with its obsession with representation, chose to transform the world into a picture, the better, after James Hall, to ensure ‘control’ and observe events ‘from a fixed and privileged vantage point’. For the South African painter, Pauline Gutter, a similar revulsion kicks into gear. She does not paint static projections or contained dynamics. Her paintings veer away from the controlling hand that is its executor. Looking at her paintings I find no controlling fulcrum, no balancing act, but a charged and highly volatile energy field. The techniques applied may be classical – painting is a Western art form – but its execution, in the loosest Nietzschean sense, is ‘African’. For Nietzsche, who never travelled to Africa, but who was acutely aware of the starkly different realms of Northern and Southern Europe – the former suffocating, the latter liberating – ‘Africa’ was a metaphor for a Dionysian force, ‘free … vinous … light of foot … pagan’. As Zweig resumes, Nietzsche craved ‘sunburn rather than sunlight, a clarity that cuts cruelly into him, instead of just closing things with explicitness’. This is my gut instinct when I look at Gutter’s paintings. They roil and froth and churn and glower. They do not illumine, they burn. They are beastly.

SUBLIME

Though Gutter’s paintings come in varying sizes, one thing is inescapable – her paintings of mammoths are mammoth. In one painting she reveals little other than the heaving beating flank of an earthbound animal. She ungrounds the grounded surface of a canvas, foreshortens, expands, distorts, and, so doing, gropes deep within the innards of animality – the hidden and suppressed forces which are the greater and more fundamental ingredients of the Human. In her case, the desire for a metastasized exploded scale is not a sign of vanity but its contrary – the need, in the midst of feverish control, to lose control. This of course is the great choreography of all great painting – it lashes and releases. In Gutter’s case, however, the release is the greater force and desire. If she is unmoved by Beauty – a pathological Western fetish – it is because, like Edmund Burke, Friedrich von Schiller, and Nietzsche before her, she is more greatly inspired by the sublime – a force that irresistibly rends one asunder.

Scale is an integral dimension of sublimity. An uncontrollable force requires an immeasurable scale. How else is one to embrace awe, how else will one shatter a measured and measuring mind? As Burke reflects, ‘Astonishment … is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect’ – the very craven effects for which Nietzsche indicted Christianity. Sublimity, in other words, is pagan. ‘Astonishment is that state of the soul’, Burke notes, ‘in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it’. If scale matters, it is because it serves as a trigger for boundlessness. For Gutter, however, infinity also lies in the detail – scale, in and of itself, is insufficient. What is more avidly sought is an abyssal immersion, a drive to conquer the infinite in a moment of expression, which, perforce, is unconquerable. And yet, this is where she goes, hocked, fearful yet fearless, uncaring of loss, wholly committed to mastering the impossible.

If Burke warns us against ‘admiration, reverence, respect’, it is because in his world, as it is in Gutter’s, these emotions have no place. It is irrelevant whether or not one admires a painting by Gutter. Astonishment is a greater promise and solvent, because therein we, the viewers who experience her world, begin to sense an instinctual thrust. Anish Kapoor, a sculptor intrigued by vast scale, echoes Burke when he declares that what matters most is ‘the sense of darkness that we carry within us, the darkness that’s akin to one of the principal subjects of the sublime – terror’. In a world increasingly infantilized, simplified, regressive in its craven need for packaged absolutes, the vision which Gutter holds fast is easy to dismiss. She will not explain herself, or explain herself away. Instead, what she yearns for most is everything that defies her capacity, everything that limits or comforts her. If her vision is beastly, it is because it is sublime.

PSYCHIC

In what for me is his most significant and durable essay, ‘The Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech’, J.M. Coetzee tracks the stuntedness and deformity of the South African imagination – its literalism, its divisiveness, its criminal parsing of the world according to race, when, in truth, there is only one human race. It is culture that is criminal, culture that separates Man from Man, Man from Beast. In Gutter’s paintings, lithographs and charcoal drawings, it is the drive to overcome cultural division and connect us to a deeper source that matters most. A metaphysician, and existentialist, a lover of the inconsolable wonder that is life, Gutter triggers what we repress, and asks us to live more fully inside the great perplexity of life. It is feeling rather than mind that is her expressive compass, though, after Nietzsche, it is perhaps better to regard her paintings as a fusion of mind and body – as a physiological thought.

Gutter is not a politician, psychiatrist, or psychologist, she is a psychic. She pulls to the surface what lies in hidden depths. Her primary medium is paint – she is a painter – but it is what she does with paint, how she shifts it, that is her tell. No two painters, no matter how similarly schooled, ever paint in the same way. One constructs genres of painting at one’s own peril. One could, for instance, find similarities between Gutter’s work and, say, Judith Mason, but no comparison, in the final analysis, suffices. Why? Because what matters above all else is the singularity of expression. In Gutter’s case, there is the matter of unbreachable scale, her animality, the wild dervish-like movement of brush and hand, the obsessive-compulsive mark-making. But, over and above technique, there is the human being, the beast who paints. That she credits years of training as a ballet dancer as the root of her skill and approach, is revealing. Movement is vital because it is gestural. It requires intensive focus and great expansion.

Listening to Gutter speak of the critical importance of dance, I’m reminded of the playwright Federico Garcia Lorca’s understanding of duende as ‘a power, not a work … a struggle, not a thought’. ‘I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, “The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet”. Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation’ – primordial. I experience something uncannily similar when looking at a painting by Gutter. The ‘work’, the ‘thought’, stems from a snarled and powerful ‘struggle’. One senses the artist at war with her weaker instincts, her drive to overcome something inscrutably compelling in the moment of making. An urgency drives her, a sense that moments, no matter how impossible to tether, can be drawn, painted – expressed. She creates not only with hands and eyes, but with the life force of a dancer who understands the whirring, churning, gyre-like energy that courses ‘from the soles of the feet’, through the ‘veins’, shot through with an electrical charge that connects her to the ground beneath her, the sky above.

Hands, birds, monkeys, bulls, beetles, maggots, hyenas, vultures – bodies. In Gutter’s ecosystem parasitism is inescapable – life begets death begets life in an eternal, monstrous, and sublime return. No hierarchies prevail, even those with the greatest strength are fragile. Hers is a leavening and levelling force that damns pride and enshrines a mortal coil. Animistic and animalistic, what fascinates her is how everything spoils, ruins, dismembers, atomises. This explains her energy field. But, far more significantly, it defines her psyche. She speaks of ‘endlessness’ – the infinity of the land into which she was born. She explores the fallout of a fire, the ‘strange holes’ burnt into the ground, ‘empty tunnels’ where trees once stood, an earth gutted by flame, scorched by heat, austere – after Zweig and Nietzsche, ‘sunburnt’. Her grasp of a sense of place and being is profoundly informed by the natural world, its wonder, its perversity, its unflinching cruelty. But if horror, or terror, moves her, so does the grace that inhabits all ruined or destroyed things, people, animals. Her paintings, after J.M. Coetzee, are ‘psychic representations’, images not of what something, some being, looks like, but what it generates in the instant of its degeneration. This turn, this painterly take, is not nihilistic, though darkness courses through it all, rather, it is life-giving, it is about the living, the dying, the living – again. In this key regard, Gutter’s paintings exemplify Nietzsche’s eternal return.  For her life is no stuck record. Her paintings are never fixed by any static formulation. Instead, they ooze, leak, quaver, rumble, churn, howl, in the nano-second that is their expression – and expiration. Fundamentally, for Gutter, her spoiled and darkling vision is regenerative.

DRAWING AND PAINTINGS

I see a ‘Family Portrait’ of four flayed animal heads, another of an upturned bull’s head on a curved boiling hot platter, portraits in profile ‘in which the features of the subjects seem to be melting away rapidly’ as though ‘attacked by acid’. ‘While the faces portrayed are patently not forming something recognisable there is potential that in their reformation that they might be made whole in another form’. What is Gutter telling us? That we are ‘witnesses’, true, ‘frightening as our witnessing is – of a state of transmutation’. That, in the midst of degeneration and decay, there is always growth. One cannot discount the artist’s life-affirming vision. Her ‘Fallen peace dove/half eaten race pigeon’ reveals the paradox at the core of her vision. For Gutter, transfiguration is a matter of biology and grace. If her world is transmutative, it is because Gutter has always understood the inextricability if death and life. They are One, continuous, bound up in a single inscrutable complex. Here, she reminds me of the devotional, specifically Christian nature of her upbringing, the immense influence of her parents who understood the Grace of God. I too know this influence well, through the quiet force of my grandmother, a devotee of Christ. And yet, in Gutter’s vision, the Church is one of many other sacraments. And here, Edmund Burke returns. Here, the sublime trumps beauty. For what drives Gutter is the realisation and wonder that change is inevitable, that nothing is ever wholly absolute. For her, ‘potential’ lies in ‘reformation’. Nothing, with any finality, ever truly dies. This surely suggests a spiritual bent, but, in my view, that spirituality is not easily decipherable. True, grace lies within decay. True, forms are ever-changing. Against self-aggrandisement, against vanity and power, Gutter reminds us that nothing seen is ever seen whole, that life is a glimmering field of portents. It is we who ‘decide on the final form that will emerge’. This is because everything, at every given point, is emergent. Nothing is ever still, ever wholly sovereign – neither God, nor Man, nor Beast.

The primordial is primeval, it speaks of a primal existence, at the uncharted beginning of time, which predates all illusion and belief. It is an origin, never finite, that is fundamentally mysterious – more metaphor than fact. How we choose to frame this great mysterious moment, how it enters our daily lives, is subject to the choices me make, how we choose to see the world. In Gutter’s case, that world is as violent as it is wondrous. For her, in my view, there is no finite origin for life, no mainstay which we might call Faith or Reason, there is only the ineluctable and unquantifiable and boundless infinite that traps us in its web. One must beware of looking too deeply into the abyss for fear it will look back at you, Nietzsche wryly remarked. Most shirk the abyss and choose to cower in Faith or Reason, but not Gutter. Like Nietzsche, she chooses to look and look, allow acid to strip a veil, and build, through the density of her hand and brush, a final inscrutable emptiness. This paradox is achingly present in her paintings and drawings. We see it in the negative spaces that make up a face, in the warp and weft of line and nothingness, the figure and its inexistence. And yet – against nothingness – Gutter hold’s fast to the choreography of spirit and flesh, gut and bone – matter.

Gutter’s charcoal drawings are as uncanny as her oil paintings. It is her drawings and paintings that will endure. Why? Because they are about duration, time, and its fallibility. One senses the howl and quiver in the movement. One knows that for the artist all form must devolve, become formless, that for her a painting, a drawing, is fundamentally gestural, and, as such, all the more exquisite because of the ineffability of the undertaking. That the tonal register of her paintings is at once sunstruck and autumnal says it all. They are caught in some high noon, some shadowless heat, yet there is darkness all around. J.M. Coetzee was mistaken when, in Age of Iron, he bemoaned the absence of an ‘air of looming mystery’ in South African art. ‘No one has done that for South Africa: made it into a land of mystery. Too late now. Fixed in the mind as a place of flat, hard light, without shadows, without depth’. On the contrary. Looking at Pauline Gutter’s paintings, it is the excoriating flaying heat we feel, but it is also the aching and depthless shadow world that enfolds it. She is Beast, she is Man, she is Heat and Shadow, and, nowhere in her astonishing choreography is any dimension ever, finally, explicable. Chiaroscuro is a Western fantasy devoted to clarity and explication. Duende is something else, less easily framed and explained. It courses through the feet, races through the veins, hurtles from one exquisite misstep to the next, and, in the jarring churning dance, binds us. Gutter’s plays of heat and shadow, hardness and softness, twists and bends, always, to what we cannot – quite – know. So be it….

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bruce Arnott, ‘Shaping Ideas: The Visual Forming of Meaning’. African Yearbook of Rhetoric (Vol.2, issue 02: January 2011). 9Also available online).

Edmund Burke, A philosophical inquiry into the origins of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (1756). Online.

J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron, London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Federico Garcia Lorca ‘Theory and play of the duende: and, Imagination, Inspiration, Evasion’, Dallas: Kanathos, 1981.

Stefan Zweig, Nietzsche, London: Pushkin Press, 2020.

ASHRAF JAMAL is a Research Associate in the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg. He is the co-author of Art in South Africa: The Future Present and co-editor of Indian Ocean Studies: Social, Cultural, and Political Perspectives. Ashraf Jamal is also the author of Predicaments of culture in South Africa, Love themes for the wilderness, the award-winning short fiction The Shades, In the World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art, and Strange Cargo: Essays on Art (forthcoming).

June 2021