Tradition & Transition
I wrote the following article about Kevin Roberts, a heavily underrated South African painter, sculptor, and close friend in 2007 for a Pretoria-based magazine called “A Look Away”, a publication that I thought would be culturally and historically relevant at the time. The magazine would prove to be an unspectacular mess and tanked roughly two-years later. Around the same time in late 2009, Kevin died of cancer. A little over a decade since his death, this article accidentally emerged from the doldrums of my writing archives, and after reading it again for the first time in so many years, I can’t get over the naivety of the writing, and at the same time the incredible window it opens into the friendship that I had with Kevin. In this spirit, the text has not been edited or updated, an ode to a time, and memory, that is now far away, but still stays with me.
It was September, late in the evening, and copious amounts of Shiraz and Merlot had led Kevin Roberts and me to leave the comfort of our loaded conversation, outside, around a warm fire. In our heightened state of awareness, we decided to childishly wander off into the cold, dark bushveld on the outskirts of a hamlet called Rosendal near the border of Lesotho and the Orange Free State. Our task was to reach a distant red light, which looked to be some kind of aircraft beacon on top of a hill on the other side of a large open grazing field. As we walked I realized the fascination that often strikes me when I leave the city and enter the countryside, where it seems plausible just to forget everything and get lost in the vastness of the landscape; disappear, never to be heard from again. At the same time, one also feels an odd connection to the surroundings by virtue of one’s disconnection from nature and dependence on the supposed sanctities of the city. As we haphazardly stumbled across the uneven, cattle trodden ground an unlikely sense of awe entered my mind, knowing that we were about fifty kilometers away from the nearest town. Of course, despite the effect of the red wine, reason interjected and I soon dispelled my overtly sentimental ideals, falling back into the narcissism of human reason.
Perhaps it was our scholarly ramblings, which certainly generated some relevant discourse, or maybe it was the resonating image in my mind of Kevin’s painting on the wall back at the house, but I came to realize that the integrity of his subject matter is oddly reminiscent of the area that we navigated that night in the highlands of the Basotho people. The silhouettes of the sandstone cliffs, moonlit thorn bushes, and windswept grasslands in the distance created an undeniably South African vernacular image in my mind that had an uncanny resemblance to the images in Kevin’s artworks. His idiom is interwoven with rich visual tapestries that seem tailored to the farmlands of the Eastern Free State where we found ourselves exploring that night. The indigenous colors, cognizant gestures, and considered textures of Kevin’s compositions are stitched and cross-hatched onto traditional themes such as portraiture, still-life, and landscape painting to reveal the underlying poetry that is diversely South African. Although much of the imagery in Kevin’s work is painted from memory, this geography in the Eastern Free State, with its cattle, corrugated iron roofs, grasslands, dams, and irrigation, could be serialized as the inspiration for his paintings. Local crafts such as weaving, braiding, and pattern painting seem to be dominant techniques that Kevin uses to customize the topography of his works. He unconsciously mediates the patterns of the land with the crafts of the people inhabiting it. Although Kevin does not directly comment on the socio-political issues at hand, he does appropriate certain activities and trends in order to cut and paste his mythology together. Teaming fish, chopped and gathered twigs, plowed fields, and sown crops may suggest some sort of commentary on the economic structure of this country, and many of these analogies were commonplace in that area of our boisterous voyage. More so, these icons represent the life-sustaining flora and fauna of the land, canons to the labored over the soil. This approach is also symbolized by Kevin’s use of fishnets, reservoirs, and various environmental measuring tools, which reminded me that despite the isolated position the presence of man was undeniable, evidenced by the glowing red beacon that Kevin and I were traveling towards.
As we walked we discussed Kevin’s design motifs and how he fuses the naturalism of his subject matter with the abstraction of his metaphors to create a serialized and patterned realism. This vernacular is continued in his use of wooden parquet flooring and lattice screens, netting, doilies, and lacey algorithms, which he superimposes and juxtaposes with flat or textured surfaces, thereby toying with the perception of realism, naturalism, and abstraction. The landscape itself becomes a lattice of meaning and signification, a matrix of symbols and archetypes born from human systems of categorization and organization (taxonomy and teleology). Cattle tags and plant tags, along with various other labels also suggest the historicism and materialism of the world that became obvious to me that night. Kevin did not seem too concerned with my embellished commentary of his work, making me come to the conclusion that he was somehow ulterior to the petty proclamations of the postmodern meta-narrative, comparable to the attitude that Jean Dubuffet had towards the foundations of art, or Michel Foucault had towards the structures of society.
By the time that Kevin and I had reached the end of the field, which was bordered by a barbed-wire fence, forbidding us from reaching our target, he briefly described the infrastructure of the surrounding farms. Despite the intrusive economic necessity of human development, the rawness of the territory was still apparent to me. After taking some night pictures of the distant Maluti Mountains we began to make our way back to the house and the thought of a warm fire became quite a source of comfort to me. We went on to discuss this ulterior nature of his work, being neither traditionalist nor conceptualist nor overly theoretical. His formal stance can be compared to that of a Renaissance master, but he clearly plays with institutional limitations and reconstructs traditions using rehashed modernist notions, such as deconstruction, fragmentation, and repetition. This is coupled with a random, almost contradictory knowledge of critical theory and philosophy, using notable archetypes such as the Jungian, dualistic analysis of anima and animus, which would certainly explain Kevin’s use of various, similar-looking women in his work and his placement of texts such as The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in some of his paintings.
If one had to theorize about Kevin’s work then I suppose that, much like de Chirico or Magritte, his act of completion is established on the primacy of his environment, focused on the brutality the individual subconscious and the ubiquity of the collective unconscious. Kevin’s various overlaid, superimposed, saturated, multiplied, juxtaposed, and repeated metaphors, signs, symbols, patterns, texts, and naturalistic, illusory elements structure a humble iconography that embraces the ‘outsider’ traits of naivety, innocence, and primitiveness. He executes this iconography with the utmost level of skill and intelligence, creating a silent discourse around territories, universals, absolutes, and borders. His work is almost anarchic in its subtlety, abstract in its realism, tentatively and sensitively suggesting memory and history, diversity and difference, passage and time, containment and freedom, nature, and culture.
As we got back we doused the fireplace outside, picked up the empty wine bottles, and entered the house. Kevin started the fireplace inside and put some coffee on the boil. I began to conclude my thoughts, devising odd couplings in my head, such as idiosyncratic multiplicity. The final thought was that Kevin makes art that is neither postmodernist nor modernist; his approach can be described as non-conformist to such conditions. The didactic and cultural nature of his work always keeps the door open to debate, but he does not consciously make art to fit within the contemporary regime of South African art, and the often paradoxical character of his work surprises even the most conceptual sensibility.