Jeanne Gaigher has beautiful hands, or rather exceedingly gorgeous fingers. When I tell the 26-year-old painter, who is currently holding her second exhibition with Smith Studio in Cape Town, she laughs. It is an unrestrained and pleasure-filled laugh, one that hints at what it might be like to sit at a dinner table with this dark-haired escapee from Durbanville and talk about nothing in particular. But Gaigher’s sunny disposition and elegant fingers are not what is currently generating a buzz among collectors at the moment – it is her moody paintings.
Gaigher is on her way to duplicating the success of her 2015 debut exhibition at dealers Candace Marshall-Smith and Amy Ellenbogen’s tiny retail venue on Church Street. Nearly all the work on her current show – it is titled “Wieg” (an Afrikaans word meaning vacillate) and comprises 13 acrylic paintings on canvas and/or scrim, as well as 11 paintings on photographs that have been translated into larger, one-off digital prints – is sold out. Some of Gaigher’s buyers are repeat customers.
One collector, I’m told, has her displayed on a wall with Walter Battiss and Cecil Skotnes. It is impressive company, especially for a painter who only two years ago started painting to assuage the boredom of life in rural America. But this is not why I mention the pairing. Gaigher’s paintings share some affinities with Battiss and Skotnes, notably the former’s off-key fauvist manner and the latter’s muted colour palette.
The comparison is, I recognise, unflattering. No young painter wants to be favourably compared with painters loved by their granny. I’ll try contemporise Gaigher. Unlike Georgina Gratrix or Mia Chaplin, fashionable painters whose expressionist studies of people and plants feature thick and eruptive surfaces, Gaigher’s canvases are resolutely flat. There is no drama of the gestural mark. In this she is similar to Deborah Poynton, who also paints very flat; unlike Poynton, though, Gaigher’s new acrylic paintings of people and places in Cape Town and Johannesburg are not fussed about technique or virtuosity.
Mood, rather than painterly skill or theatrics, is what defines a Gaigher. And this mood, or “affect” as Penny Siopis might say, is very much a product of Gaigher’s handling of colour. Gaigher’s palette tends to favour corroded greens and earthy browns. Reservoir Girl, a large abstract canvas that dominates the opening section of her current show, is composed mainly out of muted reds and mustard yellows. Priced at R66 120, the top-end of Gaigher’s price range, the work encapsulates one trajectory of her work.
Placed next to Reservoir Girl is a small digital print titled Dirty Hair. This work, priced at R9 120 and the cheapest on offer, is more obviously about something: a dark-haired woman with declined head and – quite possibly – hair issues. Gaigher’s work moves effortlessly between abstraction and more concrete subjects – a “skidonk” she saw at the W&A Waterfront or a picture decorating the wall of a Chinese restaurant in Cyrildene, Johannesburg, things she saw and snapped with her iPhone.
Photography is an important part of Gaigher’s process. It functions in much the same way a pencil or watercolour brush would have for painters past. Unlike Siopis or Marlene Dumas, two esteemed painters who principally work with found photographs, Gaigher insists on using her own snapshots as reference. Her career-launching debut exhibition at Smith included paintings based on photos she had made in China and the United States.
In 2013, shortly after graduating from Stellenbosch University, Gaigher spent a year teaching English in Taiyuan, an industrial city of 4.5 million in northern China that is famous both for its two-millennia-old history and grim levels of air pollution. She briefly returned to Cape Town in 2014 before jetting off to the US to spend time with her younger sister, a Mustang-driving accountant who lives in Monroe, Louisiana. This small town of 50,000, the birthplace of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton, is where Gaigher took up painting in earnest.
She was partly prompted by the “incredible boredom” she encountered. But she was also frustrated with how people couldn’t see the emotions she was trying to convey in her photos from her time in China. So she began painting onto prints of photos, and then also began using her photos as departure points for works on canvas.
“Painting emphasises the mythical quality of photography – it stages a reality according to how I’ve manipulated the photograph,” she told a journalist last year.
Every now and again, between her free-spirited laughter and sentences sprinkled with saucy expletives and phrases in Afrikaans, Gaigher lets go of one such perfectly formed statement about her work. Of her work more broadly, she tells me it is about “the failure of painting, its inability to translate a photo”. Of her stop-start process, which involves intermittently working on four paintings at once, she says, “I am guided by whatever happens, by not forcing the painting to be what I want it to be, of not giving in to the expectation of a painting”.
Alert eye and perceptive mind notwithstanding, Gaigher admits to be caught off guard by her unexpected success. “It is really bizarre that it happened so quickly. I thought it would only happen when I was much older.” Not that she’s bemoaning having to not work as a waitress or tutor with dreams of making it. Painting full-time she is now free to experiment, with painting on canvas, scrim, photos, maybe metal or some other surface next. “I think I would struggle to work in just one way,” she says. “I enjoy working on all these different things because it keeps me interested in my own work.”
“Wieg” by Jeanne Gaigher is at Smith Gallery in Cape Town until Saturday 19 November.