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05.02.22 - 02.04.22

Solo Exhibition


Text by David Bunn

Excerpts from Studies in Scarlet: Johann Louw’s Unsettled Bodies 

When I first encountered Johann Louw, I took him to be a radical and reclusive genre painter. After all, what else was one to make of his remarkable, evacuated industrial spaces, hauntingly monochromatic veld scenes, and vast, sandpapered charcoal portraits. The last decade has forced me to rethink this perspective very substantially. Genres of landscape, portraiture, still life, and even film are at the heart of what Louw does, but these are more and more part of a more general, more philosophical discussion of the disjuncture between such modes. Disjuncture is at the core of his painterly miseen-scène; surprisingly, so is colour.


......Stephen Mitchell’s beautiful translation of Rilke’s sonnet on the

headless and limbless Greek statue of Apollo. Here is the full version:

Archaic Torso of Apollo

by Rainer Maria Rilke

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

(Trans. Stephen Mitchell)

The memory of this poem that insists itself upon me like a quickened pulse whenever I look at Louw’s work. Rilke’s is of course one of the greatest early modernist poems to imagine how a secular understanding of subjectivity must root itself in a changed comprehension of the body. Like a lamp turned low until the body of the vessel glows, rather than the flame in the glass, Apollo’s headless torso radiates all of the affect and sensibility one would normally associate with the human face. In a moment strongly prefigurative of Sartre, Rilke redirects consciousness and visual agency away from the head to the body and its material circumstances: “for here there is no place/that does not see you”.

I have been intrigued by a similar tendency emerging in Johann Louw’s treatment of figuration, a trend that leads to the virtual “decapitation” of many of his subjects. Increasingly, and now almost inevitably in the recent paintings, evidence of affect is no longer sought in the face or eyes, which are themselves often veiled, or occluded; instead, it is made resident in the rendering of flesh and shadow. Similarly, in Louw’s group portraits, characters rarely exchange reciprocal glances or resort to even the most basic vocabulary of sociality.

Typically, they are toppled or fallen creatures, out of place in a landscape into which they seem to have been randomly dropped, or from which they recoil in misrecognition. I have drawn attention to what may seem like tiny colour details in these works, but I do think these are of great significance. If nothing else, Johann Louw is often made out to be a painter of monochromatic tones: figures and scenes take their cue from newsprint, the grey dust of industrial warehouses, and lead . Colour, when it appears in this world, commands immediate attention. The alizarin crimson stain on the background wall between the two heads in Dubbel Portret may seem inexplicable at first. On closer philosophical inspection, it will surely turn out to be part of a wider discussion of how we represent the place of our bodies in the world. Crimson is the colour of blood and the interior of the body. Projected briefly onto the wall, it records not only the painter’s hesitation about how to suture together figure and ground, but also the ephemeral manner in which we leave traces of most secret selves in the world.

Text by David Bunn

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