Jaco van Schalkwyk: Artist's symbols both hyper-real and illusory

Published Sep 3, 2017


ARIUM. A solo show by Jaco van Schalkwyk. 

At the Barnard Gallery, Main Street, Newlands, until September 19.


While such a tag may describe his keen sense of observational drawing and painting, his art is also a distortion.

His landscapes also play as still-lifes. His mixture of “things” are staged and almost theatrically put together. His invocation of light in the paintings appears contrived, while he chooses to focus on certain areas, as if with a magnifying glass.

To further justify this deconstruction of accurate representation, the artist has included sculptural elements, video and installation.

It is particularly interesting how the artist would place a sculptural object and almost complete the image with an adjacent painting as if it were a seamless continuation of that object. 

Yet it is clearly not, as it is a painting. Is it all then an illusion, a magic trick? Illusion implies there is a reality, an original by which to measure that which represents as corresponding to a designated reality or not.

Yet we have no such luxury. In the hyper-real play of images, there are but copies or further iterations. On closer inspection, the imagery is not only staged but laden with symbolic value and an almost surreal world is created. 

For example, one finds the recurrence of skulls; the intense detail of various subjects and, perhaps most interesting, painting on already existing objects, their meaning now recontextualised and appropriated. 

Such objects form what is commonly known as cabinets of curiosities - Wunderkammer - that the gallery has expertly presented.

It is unclear whether Van Schalkwyk is recreating a kind of memory and history of the exoticised Other, or whether it is simply an imaginative construction with no necessary correspondence to reality.

The glass cabinet as a concept within a museum setting is a way that nature and objects (culture) has often been presented, so that one captures and, as it were, tames the historic past. 

It is via such methods - categorising and labelling - that one is said to accrue knowledge. Yet one may critique this venture, a product of Renaissance Europe. For it is a dead art. It captures an animal once deceased; it captures the lives of individuals, communities and cultures as if the flow of time is arrested and as if people have become mere curios. 

The artist, in my estimation, circumvents this as it appears that his “museum” does not follow a strict regimen, but rather he has pieced together objects with his painterly interventions that one may describe as an elevation of the perennially forgotten, colonised and victimised.

At the same time, such a task runs the risk of further representing and thus alienating the viewer from reality, from life. In other words, this is but the construction of a gallery, which forms a societal function within an art world context.

Without giving too much away, the display of a smartphone within a cabinet structure will fascinate. It asks several questions, not least of all it acts as a portal to a time in the future where such devices too will be curios. 

One can only but imagine what technological advancement may bring, yet the constant reminder throughout the exhibition of a human quality (consider his paintings of an eye, a hand and “the poet”) so that our tools ought not to usurp what makes humans human. 

Email may connect the world more and more, but it says nothing as to what messages to send; it only makes possible the mechanism of a channel in the first place.

The irony, however, is that his canvases are immaculate, so unbelievably neat and ordered, so flat (or lacking in actual texture) and rendered with great patience that it dovetails with the memorabilia on display, yet one perhaps misses that emphatic mark, that outburst of pain or joy. It is there, but rather hidden.

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