It’s mid-afternoon on the first Thursday of the month. In central Cape Town that means a gentle buzz is building as Capetonians anticipate combining victuals with visual feasts in the Mother City’s hub spot of bars, restaurants and art galleries. First Thursday is the art world’s time to shine.
Nel, a compact gallery housed in a building hinting at traditional Cape Dutch architecture and nestled on the corner of hectic Long Street and old world, cobbled and quiet Church Street, is perfectly positioned to capitalise. It’s eponymously named, owned and managed by Luan Nel, himself an artist of renown. He opened the gallery in 2019 — and then had to close it four months later when Covid-19 struck.
“Owning a gallery presents me with another problem,” admits Nel. “I’m a passionate collector, so I end up buying too much. I can’t not have certain pieces,” he laughs. He first stumbled upon the work of John-Michael Metelerkamp in 2015 at an alternative art fair. “The paintings were wild,” he remembers, “but they spoke to me.”
By “wild”, he means the artist’s untutored, untamed style. Not formally trained, Metelerkamp roams between genres; his pieces incorporate the alternate influences of impressionism, expressionism and Fauvism, cubism, and comic book illustration techniques. But he isn’t actively seeking a particular look-and-feel, nor embracing any preference for what’s gone before: he’s an outsider artist, doing his own thing because it feels right.
“I’ve always found it challenging to describe where my ideas come from. I believe that I make paintings as a musician would make music. It’s like a rhythm — a natural occurrence within me. The process is the most important thing, and dictates which direction the painting and motive behind the painting will go,” Metelerkamp explains.
What coheres his current exhibition of portraits and figures at Nel is the ‘The Mirror in You and Me’ concept, the idea that in each person there exists a part of us all — a common humanity — and that when we look at others we have a mirror into our own selves. “We are multidimensional beings, with shared underlying personalities and traits. I explore all these dimensions, within myself, through the act of painting,” he elucidates.
It’s not always a passive or easy process. “Sometimes it feels like a war zone in the studio, a battle between the conscious and unconscious,” he admits. Which may partly account — even within the tightly curated exhibition of The Mirror in You and Me — for Metelerkamp’s astonishing versatility. Indeed, in a career of just 10 years his output has been prolific; the sense is that he is making up for lost time, that he must pore out all the ideas, impressions and images from the first 30 years of his life without art as his outlet. Beyond the current exhibition at Nel, for instance, his Nocturnes series is a vivid, impasto-dominated sequence of works rooted in his experiences growing up and living in Knysna. He has created a vast body of abstracts, myriad traditional landscapes, and a range of gentle, impressionistic pieces such as Escort — the ethereal, sketchy figures reminiscent of cave paintings from our earliest forebears.
As curator, Nel’s hardest task, from such a wide and diverse oeuvre, may have been to pinpoint the selection. Interestingly, he opted to ignore chronology. This adds to the eclecticism of the exhibit.
It stirs strong feelings. “This is you, and this is how you make me feel,” each portrait seems to say. Eleanor demands consideration of how a domestic worker puts on a façade for her employers. Her apparent mask is an archetype — and not only for a domestic worker: we all put on a face, or various faces as society demands, to cope, or to shadow our real feelings and emotions.
At the top of the staircase to Nel’s second floor, I'm jolted. Hilda is staring at me; it’s a face I know. Metelerkamp has captured the archetype of a strong-willed, powerfully voiced office cleaner. It’s a coincidence, of course, that my former colleague’s name was Hilda, but there she is, scolding me good-naturedly in a searing flash of memory across a decade of time and a fusion of two unconnected physical spaces.
Hilda could be another archetype; another observer may see dismay or a plea — or fear, the mouth hinting at Munch’s famous Scream — in her expression. But this is Metelerkamp’s precise exhibition idea at work in my mind: mirroring my subconscious feelings onto Hilda, I’m struck by guilt. I deserve my former workmate’s admonishment for not saying a heartfelt farewell and for losing contact.
Metelerkamp cleverly, sometimes playfully, encourages this subjective interpretation. Middle Man, for instance — so shockingly green, so sneering — compels reflection on our perception of value in today’s commoditised, consumerist world. Or, is that response tied to the artwork’s name? Alternatively, the expression is neutral, Mona Lisa-like, and chides us for our presumptuousness.
The artist parodies society in Hannah, a cute caricature of a self-centred, slightly vain, mutton-dressed-as-lamb suburban housewife, perhaps. The style is Picasso, or Dali, and in the subject’s lack of self-awareness Metelerkamp seems to mock himself for daring to imitate greatness.
Other pieces are more objectively disturbing. Apostle is one of the artist’s more menacing creations, conjuring a dystopian, futuristic vision. What trauma is in the seemingly tremoring brushstrokes and fragmentary composition of Shower Panic? A few dots need to be connected when observing Ghost Arm, but the reference point is the physical sensation that persists after an amputee’s loss of the limb. Often, their sensations are heightened; the mind feels an ongoing throb or stabbing in a painful reminder of what was. The painting’s power is in eliciting empathy for loss of any kind. ‘What are you taking for granted?’ it also asks the viewer.
The Mirror In You and Me evokes this gamut of reactions and emotions. It takes an artist with an acute understanding of the human condition to achieve this.
Metelerkamp invites us to look differently at portraits, not only as representations of another, or as symbols of something, but as reflections of ourselves.
• Nel, 117 Long Street, corner of Church Street, 083 3246512. John-Michael Metelerkamp’s exhibition ‘The Mirror In You and Me’ runs until April 29.