written by: Ashraf Jamal
Night consumes the paintings, a night in the artist’s mind’s eye, the way he sees and inhabits the world. However, while they are brooding, they nonetheless possess an uncanny ability to deliver us from darkness, because, under the cowl of night, all is a-glimmer, as though light emerges out of darkness.
‘What is colour’, Andrew Marr asks, if not ‘the brain’s apprehension of the energy of the cosmos’? ‘There must be something – of shapes in the paint. Where will these shapes come from? From the world around the painter’. Marr’s view, intimately expressed in A short book about painting, reveals a further synergy – for what Metelerkamp delivers is the utterly engrossing language of paint itself. His forms emerge through paint, because of it. Unmixed and uncontaminated – squeezed directly from tube to canvas – the artist’s approach reminds us that this world, the one we live in, is expressed through us. Like tubes of compacted colour, we merge our beings with the darkness all around. It is how we live, what we express, that determines our relationship with a consuming void.
In ‘Nocturnes’ – a series of paintings inspired by the solemnity and beauty of the music of Chopin and Debussy, and by the Garden Route, the artist’s life in Knysna – it is the partiality of human existence that comes to the fore, the glimmers of apprehension of a world, a cosmos, rich in mystery. Because what Metelerkamp does is not record what is seen or known, but what is intimated and unseen. The suite of works – portraits and urban scenes – eschews the photographic record in favour of an immersive experience. One senses the artist’s life, the throb and thrum of human and elemental energy, the consuming silence and darkness. But most of all, it is the light that breaks through, flecked, scattered, or pooled, which, finally, reassures and calms us.
‘I don’t paint light’, says Bridget Riley, ‘I present a colour situation which releases light as you look at it’. While he is an expressionist rather than an abstract artist, Metelerkamp nevertheless approaches the mystery of light in a comparable fashion. Light is what we stumble upon, what momentarily holds us. In Metelerkamp’s case, the colour palette is strange. His is an empurpled, violet, greenly orange world which appears, to me at least, as utterly natural. If his take on light is remarkable, so is his approach to paint. The density of its application is immediately evident. One senses a man who, in the moment of painting, is searching for an intangible yet distinctive moment when something is revealed. If enigmatic veils cloud our vision, sometimes it is possible to make sense of things, bring them palpably alive to the surface.
Looking at Metelerkamp’s paintings, I’m reminded of Matthew Collings’ remark in Matt’s Old Masters: ‘The type of painting I find gripping is the type where you can say, “Well, the paint is everywhere here”, regardless of what the subject matter is or what’s known about what was going on in society at the time’. I get Collings’ purist take, but somehow, looking at Metelerkamp’s gloaming suite of paintings with its sensation not only of night but of twilight – worlds between worlds – I cannot forget that they were largely painted in 2020, a year more introspective than any other, more confounded, more searching. And what strikes me as I look at these paintings, wrought from the darkest time in living memory, is the artist’s sincerity. It is as If Metelerkamp is responding to all the world’s perplexity and dread. If his play of light and dark tells us anything, it is that we needn’t fear the isolation we are all experiencing.
‘I believe that my job as an artist is to simplify the complexities of my life’, says the artist, ‘Or at least my experience of it. The sense of overstimulation I feel and a propensity for chaos lingers around every corner of my psyche. That tension between chaos and form is a primary informer of the work I strive to make. Translating what I feel and see into a visual language is about focussing on something that I find interesting. And I may not be able to pin down the exactness of my curiosity; but I feel the need to challenge these thoughts and feelings and show myself what it looks like in a visual sense, with paint’.
The aching honesty of Metelerkamp’s words and works is what we avidly need. It is not an answer to living which he gifts us, but the will to thrive because of and in spite of the asphyxiating grip we are all experiencing. If his is a shot psyche, it is also aglow with promise. In the commingling of ‘chaos and form’ Metelerkamp draws out the good that lingers in the dark. This he achieves through ‘experimentation’, by embracing risk. ‘Forcing thought opens up possibilities of a journey through the painting. Colours dictate colours and forms dictate forms’. The moment a painting is arrested, when painting stops, when we, the audience, arrives upon it, everything remains volatile.
There is no closure, only endless apertures, endless possibilities. There is something exhilarating and liberating about Metelerkamp’s paintings. They allow us to trust ourselves, even when we are most vulnerable. The artist reminds me of George Condo’s words, ‘Don’t step back until you think you have something to look at’. Standing in front of Metelerkamp’s paintings, my eyes dart hither and thither, pulled, dragged, buoyantly tossed about, then momentarily eased … stilled. What more could one require from a painting in this uncertain time?