Jan van der Merwe | Art.co.za | Art in South Africa
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The Best Kind of Art

by Robert Hodgins

The work of Jan van der Merwe is for the me the best kind of art, where medium, colour, shape , external reference, scale, together from not so much an assemblage but rather each is so integrated that they become and entity, not to be considered as preachment or theory or a collection of idea particles, but as a complete thing.

It is not idly coincidental that one talks of this as a body of work. First, the material, the rubble of a complex society and notably the flattened rusty tin from which van der Merwe constructs clothes, was-lappies, soap, utensils. This material is the substance of lives not only visible in any shack town along any highway here.

It is the substance of poverty, neglect, oppression. It can also be regarded as the substance of lives saying: “I shall live. I shall survive. I will endure”.

For me although this is perhaps autobiography, it connects with verbal poetry, the best of which often uses words as thin stamped on as even van der Merwe’s tin. What would be more than these: be, not, or to? Then remember Hamlet.

The companions to the tin clothes and objects have similar resonance. It is nearly always the furniture, pine table, chairs, wardrobes of the valiant poor. I recognise this furniture, carried from house to house, lodging to lodging, with a certain grim resolution, kept functional and clean equally grimly. And I recognise that such furniture becomes loved. So a table with chairs, a wardrobe hung with tin suits or cement bags clothing by van der Merwe already link with differing chords. From his exhibition at Aardklop in Potchefstroom I remember with vivid poignancy (and something else impossible to exactly define) the curious vibrancy of a loosened tie hung on a kitchen chair.

What sharpens this, and sharpens it beyond a kind of historicity, is the modest, even sly or shy, presence of the black and white videos, which seldom go beyond narrative further than repetition. Set into the table with which the tie-on-chair was co-installed, was a small video of a pistol repetitively fired: no target, no face behind the gun. But an extraordinary vital reminder of how such places, times, objects can generate or repress violences of huge monotony. An in general brown drabness of a typical van Merwe installation, often (look at the video in the washing up installation in this exhibition) these small videos have the brightness of an eye, interrogating, reminding, demanding. There are too, ambiguities, which van der Merwe is able to create with skill.

A suit, which hanging requires almost a pattern from its tin ( the suit of a seedy salesman perhaps?) when laid out on a red carpet becomes a metaphor for a victim.

So van der Merwe’s work is like a body. The interaction of the parts is their identity. And for me, at any rate, almost the best of this is that each of us will find its face, each of us will see a different totality: and what each of use, them, you, him, they will find will not be trivial. This is a grand art

Robert Hodgins


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