Julia Meintjes on Vivian's Painting

From the exhibition catalogue published to coincide with the inaugural exhibition of the Tokara gallery, Stellenbosch

'There is nothing, or very little, utterly new in the world:

what is vital are the unique, diverse viewpoints from which each artist

observes and interprets both that which we consider reality,

as well as those works of art, already created by others,

which particularly interest him.'

(Giorgio Morandi 1962, translated from the Italian)

Each painting presents itself with the quiet expectancy of a stage on which the curtains have just been drawn. Again and again Vivian van der Merwe assembles his still-life subjects, arranging them on an ordinary wooden table positioned to the left of his easel. The players begin their painted performance as familiar objects collected and kept in his studio – a tea tin, an enamel jug, a metronome, a creamy vase, a coffee pot, a patterned cloth... Their positioning on the table is precisely controlled by the artist – for each choreographed arrangement becomes the inspiration for a complex structure which develops through a series of paintings. Each is more removed from the physical appearance of the still-life than the one before it, yet each form in the paintings contains the residue of its ancestor: tin, jug, metronome or vase.

The still-life table is always placed away from any direct sunlight and with the light source (the studio window) always 2-3 metres to its left, depending on the size of the studio. Natural, indirect daylight is crucial – it is precisely when the objects are located in this most simple and silent situation, in clear, muted light, that van der Merwe can study delicate colour and tonal variations which would be lost in artificial light. 'Light is the primary condition for all visible form. Whether it's the way each pigment reveals a unique miniscule fraction of the greater visible light spectrum or the way in which light illuminates forms, shapes, colours etc, light is the precondition for pictorial space in painting.' (the artist, 2001)

He revisits the same still-life, always from the same viewpoint: his eye-level slightly above and away from the scene. (For us, as viewers of the completed paintings, this is also a familiar point of view.) And so begins the series. The formal qualities of the objects and their shadows, the relationships between the horizontal support of the table and the bottle, jug, bowl or coffee pot, and between these object-presences, become more compelling to the artist than their physical appearances. As viewers we recognise the coffee pot or the bottle as a poetic performer. Simultaneously they present their shape, texture, decorative details and shadows as structural elements on a flat, painted surface.

As the series develops the recognisable forms bow out of their illusory space and the artist's exploration of what he describes as 'the intangible beauty and infinite mutability of light and space sensed through form' takes over. Van der Merwe reduces his range of colour and works with discreet tonal and colour variations to create compositional metaphors for this light-space. He emphasises the relief surface of his paintings – textured areas of encaustic wax, thickly-applied oil paint and collaged shapes juxtapose with fine gesso surfaces. The horizontal support of the table usually remains. His objects, like the angled metronome needle or shape of the handle of the coffee pot, inform the viewer even when the surface of the painting is a weathered wooden table top.

For Vivian van der Merwe it is the complex and exciting tension (conceptually and formally) between fixing the support (and its objects) in a spatial continuum on a canvas, and the organisation of all the visual elements as colour and form on the picture-space itself which takes him back, again and again, to the simple still life.

'...his works are a powerful reminder that art opens up a fissure in the obviousness of the everyday – an opening within which new possibilities dislodge what is merely given.”

(Bert Olivier on Vivian van der Merwe in 1994)