I had the pleasure of visiting the studio of artist Ben Coutouvides, who is to present a series of works at Eclectica Contemporary. His exhibition opens on the 5 April 2018.
We began our conversation by taking a cursory glance at his artistic background. He studied Fine Art at Rhodes University, where his father, a lecturer in the department, taught the young artist drawing. He is grateful that he has managed to continue as a professional artist and at one time was represented for a while by Johans Bormann.
We further discussed his major thematic interest which has to do with a search for home. This is investigated through landscape in the main, how land both shapes and is shaped by human habitation within the land. “Can one find a home in the world?” says the artist quite simply and emphatically. This question and the subsequent transformation of land, of the intrusion – at times – of the city is further complicated by the movement of generations, and in that regard the history of his own family’s movement from Europe to South Africa is interesting.
This intrigue with nature in relation to culture and history is reflected in his working process, whereby he collects wood carvings from Cape Town’s Milnerton market, and through various kinds of splicing, breaking and reconfiguring, together with a deep sensitivity to material (he cites three distinct kinds of wood in this regard that each speak to an African, a South African and an “alien” provenance) he manages to allow the figurative and the landscape as subject to resonate strongly. In this regard, material and application have what he termed “a valency of meaning”, by which I understand that his art speaks to the capacity for meaning-making at once harmonious and full of tension, which allows the image to, as it were, convey a narrative.
However, all this was in the abstract. So, the idea, the spirit would have to be embodied and we thus went through some art works, including some of those that will be shown at his upcoming exhibition. What is particularly appealing to me is Coutouvides’ strong drawing ability coupled with his almost feverish multiple layering of paint, the very physicality of the substance. This would supplement his dual interest in sculptural forms. He appears fascinated by structure, by anatomy, by the puppet-like, pseudo-reality of wooden figures as he alters and recombines what exists, seemingly creating a kind of spirit embodied in what is yet wholly artificial, silent, inanimate matter.
His work ethic is evident, exhibiting a keen eye. A glance at his work in progress sketch book would be a learning aid to any would-be artist. His process seems relentless – contemplative and yet vigorous; sequential and yet teeming with raw emotion. One senses a kind of intellectual astuteness to concepts of anatomy and classical form and yet this breaks down in the haze-like, vibrating, shimmering quality he manages to expunge from his paint use. It’s as if “the centre cannot hold” – a modernist idea that perhaps reached its apex in post modern discourse. Indeed, the series that he will present, namely “Chimera beings”, a reference to the patron saint of surgeons, seems to implicate the very idea of post modernism: hybridity, surface, incessant movement and change. It seems to further suggest the oddity of seeming incongruent juxtapositions. In fact, he will combine his sculptural icons and paintings, the paintings themselves revealing an odd, seeming incomprehensible duality of subject and appearance.
Having said that, there does seem to be a unified thread: A shimmering light amidst a certain stasis, where “home” is found in the studio, in the garden (a kind of cultivated and tamed nature) and perhaps in searching for ways to fit otherwise incoherent components into a body, that is then able move, speak and reintegrate in meaningful ways with the very soil beneath the feet. Ben Coutouvidis’s exhibition should certainly open the mind and heart in exciting ways.