The Mayor of Barnet, oil on canvas, 700 x 580mm 

George Coutouvidis taught for 18 years at Rhodes Art School. He has lived in Prince Albert for 15 years. His life and art are free of clutter or status anxiety. He walks across the road every day to his studio and paints. This is his first solo show in a commercial gallery. 

The garden outside George Coutouvidis’ studio in Prince Albert needs no water. Tall metal stems shoot up out of the ground, bearing curious buds. They once were rusty old kettles, ancient sardine tins and bicycle rims. Now they’re delightful floral wonders that thrive in the arid Karoo. We’re being subtly prepared for what we will find inside the studio: irony, humour and gentle yet firm instruction. We enter through an old barn door, a little step below ground level. My eyes, which are used to the bright outside light, take a moment to adjust. In this moment, before I’m aware of the paintings, I register the sweet smell of linseed oil and genuine turpentine.

I’m one of the lucky few to have a preview of George’s new work, and there are twenty or more oil paintings on the walls and floor of the studio. I recognise some of the familiar Coutouvidis subjects: images from Pop culture, from the Old Masters and colonial Africa.

Be Afraid of No Man, oil on canvas, 700 x 600mm

Cultural collision, memory, identity – this is well- worn territory, from Doris Lessing to Kentridge, but Coutouvidis’ sensibility is unique. Global culture put confident Europeans into Africa. They rode across ancestral land with their gin and tonics, displacing people and killing animals for sport. Animals abound in George’s art, from sharks and elephants to Barbara Cartland’s lapdog. The struggle between man and Nature, a favourite theme of Romantic art, is here too. But George can’t help reminding us that modernity swept all before it. The prancing eighteenth- Century horse is supplanted by the inane domesticity of Donald Duck. There he goes, waddling his way into Conrad’s Congo. Alongside hangs a small painting of two courting Impala, oblivious to the bomber overhead.

Coronation Park, oil on canvas 700 x 600mm

George’s art doesn’t fit neatly into our usual ideas about abstraction, figuration, or landscape. It has nothing to do with fashion, or with other painters around him. He takes a long view of art history and of humanity. The references in his art are Gainsborough, Rembrandt and even the forgotten man of American art, Winslow Homer. He clearly admires the breadth of their subject matter, the idea that art should deal with big human questions. Survival, not the reality- show kind, but as in the trenches of World War 1, is a recurring theme.  Fascinated by calamity and human folly, his mindset is more Goya, less the cool detachment of contemporary art. 

On the desk in his studio there are old art magazines, with titles like” The Old Masters” and “Great Art of the Past”, which date from the early 1960s. They were meant to educate the wider English public about the grand tradition of European art. The colour reproductions are often dull or slightly off –key. These are part of George’s image bank. It is two years since I’ve visited, and the reference section is much the same. I notice there are re-visits of drawings from several years ago.” Yes,” says George, “I’m happy to return to familiar themes, to find different angles on them. You don’t need to frantically search for new stuff all the time.”  Perhaps they hark back to a less distracted time, a time of getting on with what one had. 

The Ebola Hunters, 700 x 600mm

Coutouvidis is a master of several things. His drawing is assured and absolutely economical: he can suggest the gesture or incident with the minimum of marks. As any master should, he makes it look easy. But I know how often he will erase and re-work a thing until it’s just right. That “just –right-ness” is about meaning as much as technique. The works have a certain luminosity achieved through the patient build –up of many transparent glazes. A painting may take years to resolve. That requires patience, sitting it out for the right moment.