Some observations on VIVIAN VAN DER MERWE’s exhibition FORM / STILTE

Vivian van der Merwe’s art can be described as a return to an early 20th century concern with the pure properties of painting. His works resist interpretation and invite the viewer to simply look. The title of the exhibition: Form/Stilte, hints that there is no narrative to decode, no deeper meaning, no allegory or symbolism – what is required is nothing more than the time and quiet to look and appreciate the pure properties of these paintings: light, colour, tone, line, form, edge, texture.

At a time where busy multi-media installations, pure concept-art and one-liner parodies predominate, Vivian’s art requires nothing but time and openness to perception. His own processes are time consuming – old methods such as wax encaustic and gesso are revived, pigment is applied slowly, in layers, taken away and reapplied again and again. It is not surprising to hear that some of these paintings took decades to complete. This slow, contemplative process is akin to meditation, an act of being in the moment, with nothing more than the movement of the artists’ hand and eye, and the integrity of the painting’s surface with it’s particular demands guiding the entire process. In this sense, Vivian’s painting constitutes a sedimentation of time, and results in the kind of works one wants to look at again and again, works that never exhaust the eye.

Vivian is clearly versed in art history: there are formal links to analytic cubism, little quotations of Matisse, moments of pure geometry that reference the musical intervals of Byzantine art. In this sense, Vivian is a painter’s painter, and a joy for art historians. His method indicates the extent to which his art resists classification as either a naturalist or a formalist: many of his smaller works can be described as highly realistic in so far as they brilliantly capture light on simple white objects such as glasses or enamel bowls (no-one can paint whites like Vivian!), but these small moments, jewel-like in their clarity and stillness, are used as foundations for bigger, abstract works, in which the small curves and hints of colour of the smaller works are translated into bold and dynamic surfaces. Vivian’s repertoire, therefore, is akin to the oeuvre of a versatile musician, ranging from delicate chamber music to more orchestral statements.

Lize van Robbroeck

October 2013