After years at sea Jake Aikman has finally arrived on land. This is the case in a number of senses. Haunt, which opened at Smac Gallery at the Trumpet art design centre in Rosebank, will be the Cape Town based artist’s first Joburg solo exhibition. In his art practice he has made a similar leap to dry land; known for painting seascapes he is now producing works with wood, which are inspired by forests. The shift reflects a new fixation with this natural phenomenon, following a trip to Knysa to visit his brother, where he spent long periods of time in this forested area. 

Not out of the woods yet, 2016, oil on board 165 x 121 cm
Not out of the woods yet, 2016, oil on board 165 x 121 cm

“My brother is a part-time tour guide in the forests. I immediately felt it was an environment you could inhabit. I never got this feeling in the sea. You can’t tame the sea. You don’t ever feel secure in it. In the forest you can make a home, you can adapt (the trees, the environment) with your hands.”

He has not completely dispensed with the sea — Haunt consists of some seascapes. However, depictions of the sea and forests are united by a green palette, suggesting a relationship between them — they feel connected one, evolving from the other, ‘speaking’ to each other.  Yet stylistically the seascapes are in stark contrast as they are almost hyper-real depictions. Aikman faithfully represents the soft contours of green coloured waves. With no land in sight in works such as Ebb (2016) or From Here on Out (2016) or Janus, a visually compelling diptych presenting two seascapes stitched together like mirror images, you sense that the view of the sea is presented from a boat or a position in the sea. This may have something to do with the fact that Aikman has been a keen surfer.

“I was drawn to it the mood of it, the feel of it. I have always loved traversing it. I love ferries, whenever I had the chance to catch one I did. Surfing, does position you in a very vulnerable position in the sea and I wanted to translate that experience.”

His artistic arrival on ‘land’ has been embodied by wood works, recalling battered doors, appearing to be weathered by time or the elements or the result of a terrified or anxious inhabitant keen to escape. Take the work Not out of the woods yet, where strips of the wooden surface have been ripped out. These ‘forest’ works function more as sculptures, though they are square shaped and hang on the wall. 

The soft fluidity of the renderings of the sea contrast with the hard, rigidity of the forest-inspired works. Your attention is drawn to these qualities via a surface that is marked, scratched and cut into. They imply violence or distress. It appears as if Aikman has set out to destroy his own paintings and for those that admire his poetic figurative seascape paintings they might be perplexed by this seemingly destructive mode he is pursuing.

He has been challenging the surface of his paintings or painting itself, he admits. 

“The sea always seemed to be like a veil, concealing everything underneath. This is particularly the feeling you get if you are sitting on it bobbing — you can’t see what it is below it. The wood offers a way to reveal something.”

Janus, 2016, oil on canvas 165 x 400 cm
Janus, 2016, oil on canvas 165 x 400 cm

Aikman’s seascapes were literal and figurative autobiographical foils as they were inspired by personal dramas, evoking moods or feelings that could be reflected via the brooding, tenebrous settings. Janus, for example started out as a representation of a failed relationship — each painting depicting one of the partners. In order to finish it and suppress the narrative he settled on evoking the Janus figure, a two faced mythical creature with one face in the past and the present.

Arriving on ‘land’, via the forest inspired works he has shifted his process, allowed himself to let go a bit. Not only is he free from a controlled figurative language but he no longer feeds off personal traumas to make his art. Instead he responds to the material itself.

“It has stimulated me, to be more inventive. I am able to be more playful.”

Haunt presents seascapes and abstract wood works, but other paintings too, which operate as a transition between the two modes. He is not done with seascapes, he says. He may have opted to spend time enjoying the land, the forests, but like a loyal sailor his gaze will often return to the sea.

Haunt will show at Smac Gallery Joburg, Trumpet until February 25

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