Bar Codes: Deconstructing Labels and Their Boundaries, by Kresta Tyler Johnson, Arts journalist and critic, London, England, 2006
Kresta Tyler Johnson is an arts journalist and critic currently based in London, England. The curator and author of numerous international art exhibitions, collections and catalogues, she was previously the news editor for an online publication in South Africa.
In a supermarket each product is identified with a barcode. This label possesses the pertinent information regarding a specific item and becomes its true form of identification. A label will follow an item from its inception and arrival into the commercial world through to its purchase and eventual consumption. Ironically, art produced outside the West often becomes a similar commodity. Upon creation, the art will enter the global art market with a label that will determine if the work is viewed as authentic with the expected aesthetic qualities. The challenge, even in the 21st century, is how to overcome these preconceptions? If a comparison is made of critical writing on contemporary art, European and American artists do not necessitate labels as qualifiers of their identity to the extent African artists do. The quest to transcend this limitation is fraught with complications. Paul du Toit is an example of a South African artist who has been able to propel himself out of the restrictive structures of South African art and overcome Western stereotypes regarding the appearance of South African art. David Koloane writes that the result of colonial influence in Africa is ‘evident in that aesthetic education standards are still based on the British model … (and that) this influence has not waned or become an exception after independence in most African states but rather the general rule. This influence has become the criterion of aesthetic realization in the visual arts.’ 1 This is exaggerated further when the non-western country, in this case South Africa, possesses insular, academic ideals that may alienate artists who do not ‘fit’ the particular rhetoric and preconceived categories. An artist must contend with the internal, national complexities before even attempting to launch onto the world stage.
Paul du Toit is a South African artist who has carved a unique niche in the international arena. Beyond being able to access and be exhibited globally, du Toit has simultaneously continued to create a very personal form of art that has not adjusted itself to the demands of a commercial art market. Simply said, du Toit has also been able to create art for art’s sake. The cliché may be tired, but it is truly applicable in his case. Du Toit’s art is his own; a linear, phantasmic world that he has created from his mind and experiences. This is his art.
From his earliest creations, du Toit has focused on a personal interpretation of the human form and visage. Creativity was flowing from du Toit’s fingers as early as age five.
When he was ill at age 11 with rheumatoid (juvenile) arthritis, distraction and consolation came in the form of books on Miró and Picasso. In the hospital where du Toit was confined, he found validation of his portrait renderings through the work of these masters. Accepting and recognising his own style at an early age allowed du Toit to create in a realm free from the constraints of more mature artists preoccupied with trying to conform to accepted norms. Throughout his stay in the hospital, art was a form of escape from the endless hours of lying motionless. Du Toit’s eye became attuned to the subtleties and movements of the human figure. He studied the motions of people around him, drawing incessantly even after his departure from the hospital. Du Toit had discovered an outlet for exploring the images that prevailed in his mind. It was during this period that du Toit studied his portraits and developed his signature style of limiting all expressions to line drawings. 2
Not adhering to the expected, du Toit’s paintings, drawings and sculptures deserve comparisons with artists such as Dubuffet or Basquiat. Similar to these artists, the term ‘primitive’ may be used in critical analysis of du Toit’s work, but I believe he has surmounted this descriptive barrier. It is impossible to identify du Toit as either a formally trained, academic South African artist who participated in resistance art or as an artist who is relying on the kitsch of reproduced visions of Africa. He is part of ‘… the intervening space ‘beyond’, (which) becomes a space of intervention in the here and now.’ 3 Du Toit is a borderline artist who is creating the new and working to reposition the stereotype of a contemporary, South African visual artist. The theorist and writer Homi Bhabha engaged with the idea of borderlines and boundaries when he wrote, ‘Borderline artists may have fragmented narratives … memories that are potent … but their experience of survival gives them a special insight into the constructed, artefactual, strategic, and contingent nature of those events that are memorialised, by the powerful, as being the ‘facts’ of life … The borderline work of art demands an encounter with ‘newness’ that is not part of the continuum of past and present; nor is it a ‘newness’ that can be contained in the mimesis of ‘original and copy’. 4
‘Newness’ is a seductive characteristic that dominates demanding western art markets. Artists on the periphery may be tempted to compromise their creations hoping to gain access to this unfamiliar but besotted locale. Remaining abreast of these temptations is essential for an artist. Du Toit seems to be navigating these spaces and unknowingly entered a realm that deserves further investigation in a critical framework.
Media and the ability to harness this rapidly expanding area of technology is another facet to Paul du Toit’s work. From the internet’s infantile moment to a life-changing career commitment it has been a driving element in du Toit’s success. Initially art was a hobby while du Toit worked as a software engineer in the early 1990s in Johannesburg. Du Toit became a master of the intricacies of the new technology in South Africa and quickly realised a way forward for his own art. The Web provided a forum that du Toit exploited to the fullest extent and he reaped great rewards. His first exhibition as a professional artist in 1998 was a result of a gallery in Paris extending an invitation to exhibit after its owners saw five works du Toit had laboriously scanned and uploaded onto his website. The internet served to level the artistic playing field for du Toit by allowing him to promote and publicise his art, gain an international audience and not be solely dependent on an acceptance by the South African art establishment.
Paul du Toit has once again leapt forward using the power of podcasts, the new broadcasting phenomenon, to share his art with the public. Du Toit is ultimately concerned with facilitating an education and communication of his personal method of creation. He has found the ability to exceed limitations with his resourcefulness, utilising his power of determination coupled with technology to achieve a label-less existence. One review of du Toit’s show in New York said ‘Paul du Toit, a South African artist … ’ when in reality the caption should have read, ‘Paul du Toit, an artist, who lives and works in South Africa … ’ 5 Clearly du Toit has found a way to exist without predetermined labels and should be recognised accordingly. Unfortunately, even in the minds of established Western critics, an easily applied label will often prevail.
In order to reposition historical connotations it will take a variety of individuals including artists, critics, academics and theorists to explore the boundaries, transgress borders and discover redefinitions that will ultimately alter the art world’s bar codes. ‘One must understand however, that forming a clear perspective of Africa’s place in contemporary culture requires a level of self-definition and self-representation, and even more so when others are unwilling to take that reality as a given.’ 6 Paul du Toit is striving to do this, operating in uncharted territory as an individual, working to dissolve the restrictive boundaries that continue to predominate in the current local and global contexts. The trail that du Toit is emblazoning has created an example of an avenue for previously marginalised artists to discover themselves in the global art market and aspire to an unknown level of creative freedom that is without stigmas and labels. His art possesses an expressive authenticity that is an accurate portrayal of his personal values and beliefs. 7 Du Toit has earned legitimacy and emits an authority that warrants recognition within South Africa and the international art scene.
Notes to pages 12-13 of the book Paul du toit “Fighting with my weak hand”
1. Koloane, David. 1998 'Art criticism for whom?', in Art criticism and Africa, eds. Katy Deepwell et al., pp.69-72. London: Saffron Books Eastern Art Publishing.
The Confines of Paul du Toit, by Sanford S Shaman, Cape Town, 2005
Sanford S. Shaman is a curator, art critic, and fine arts consultant based in Cape Town. A former National Endowment for the Arts Fellow (USA), Shaman has served as director of several art museums including the Washington State University Museum of Art, the Palmer Museum of Art at the Pennsylvania State University, and the Schneider Museum of Art at Southern Oregon University. From 1989 to 1999, Shaman was Director of Fine Arts Exhibitions and Collections at the University of Haifa in Israel. Organizing and curating exhibitions of contemporary art for over twenty years, Sanford Shaman has written extensively on the art of today. His articles and critical essays appear in exhibition catalogues and publications in the USA, Canada, the UK, Europe, Israel, and South Africa.
Paul du Toit was overcome with thirst. Although tanks of chilled milk were not far from his bed, he was unable to reach them on his own. Du Toit was bedridden with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. On this particular night, no one seemed to be around to bring him a drink, and all the wheel chairs had been put away. He managed to lower himself to the floor. In a sitting position, he leaned forward and stretched his arms across the floor in an attempt to pull the rest of his body forward. Thanks to the hospital’s polished floors, du Toit found he could ‘walk’ forward with his arms and the rest of his body would slide easily over the waxed surface until he arrived at the milk tanks. It was on that night in the Johannesburg General Hospital that the 11-year old Paul du Toit understood what it meant to free himself from confinement.
In the years prior to his hospitalization, Paul du Toit had passed many long hours in the house next door to his family’s home. There his aunt, Elizabeth van der Sandt, a dedicated painter, maintained a studio where she worked daily. Influenced by European painters, van der Sandt made regular trips to Italy and Spain, and she painted richly textured detailed works of bullfights, still-lives, and European subjects from photographs. Du Toit has fond memories of daily visits to the studio, where his aunt taught him to draw and to make representational works in charcoal and oils. He vividly remembers opening the doors to be greeted by the heady scent of oil paint, and the ever-changing play of natural light upon the vast assortment of curious objects that inhabit an artist’s studio.
In 1976, however, the hours in his aunt’s studio came to an abrupt end, when at age 11 he fell ill and became hospitalized. During the three years he spent at Johannesburg General Hospital, art and anything vaguely related to it became a lifeline for young du Toit. In the hospital, he and other children were taken to arts and crafts classes where they participated in such activities as macramé and origami, but it was drawing that was most important to du Toit. As long as he was free from pain, he drew constantly. Spending long periods in bed, he would draw in crayon and pencil. Part of the treatment for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis included regular hot wax treatments on the hands – its penetrating heat providing pain-relief, followed by the exercise of peeling off the thick pliable material. Du Toit found that he could also form and sculpt the wax. Regularly working it, he developed a rapport with the material in response to his need to make art. Experiences like these have informed the artistic vocabulary of Paul du Toit, who has a strong affinity for sculpture and who today paints with viscous materials suggestive of the responsiveness of semi-molten wax. Even the incising of his prominent childlike signature into a viscous ground is evocative of his effort to transform therapeutic wax treatments into works of art.
The Relative Vision
A painting is a window into another world, but in the Johannesburg General Hospital the window into which du Toit most frequently gazed was that of the Intensive Care Unit. With little to do, he occasionally passed extended periods watching patients in the Intensive Care Unit through a large picture window. Realising that not every patient left this place alive, du Toit developed a relative vision through which he began to see the world like his painting of 2004, as a unique ‘Social Hierarchy’ (pp.21, 88). With himself as the fixed point he observed the condition of those around him, and became intensely aware of who was ‘better off’ and who ‘worse off’. It was a vision of the world that today colours the quirky paintings and sculptures, which have been characterized as exploring the human psyche. 1 Lining-up for comparison, the three figures of du Toit’s 2001 painting, ‘Good Bad Ugly’ (pp.21, 67), betray this relative vision of a hospitalized teenager whose social sphere was that of his fellow patients. Here the yellow-headed one with the red eye stands out from the rest. This figure with a lozenge mouth shows up frequently in the du Toit oeuvre, but in ‘Good Bad Ugly’, his nose and the eye merge, distinctly forming a red capital letter P. It is difficult not to conjecture that at least on a subconscious level, this P-for-Paul character is the artist as the fixed point against which the others are measured. In the four separate canvases of the ‘Walk Unafraid’ series of 2001 (pp.21, 73), he again dominates the group. Standing at attention, the four awkward ‘soldiers’ in these pictures beg the question, who is ‘better-off’ and who is ‘worse-off’?
There were other ways in which du Toit’s vision was formed during this period. He was first introduced to the works of Miró and Picasso during these years when his parents brought him books on these modern masters with the hope that their vibrant colours would cheer him up. Perhaps this accounts for the upbeat palette with which his work has come to be associated, but it was the line and the abstraction that struck du Toit when he first encountered the art of Miró and Picasso. His introduction to them was also validation and encouragement for his own drawings, which were subject to clinical scrutiny by the hospital’s psychologists.
Du Toit relates that at one point his parents had to explain to the psychologists that his drawings were not cause for concern, but rather the result of the child’s exposure to the art of Picasso and Miró. The influence of those artists would stay with du Toit, manifesting itself not only in his colours and line, but also in his penchant for the childlike. Aztec Art with its continuous line, and strange figures with extended tongues was another influence that impressed du Toit during these early years. It is also easy to see how the revered satirical cartoonist, Don Martin of MAD magazine came into play as another important early influence that laid the groundwork for the ‘guileless, spontaneous, and accessible visual vocabulary,’ 2 that would be the hallmark of du Toit’s paintings of the 21st century.
Resilient and tenacious, du Toit who had been diagnosed never to walk again, in fact recovered after three years. But the confinement with which he wrestled in the hospital would reassert itself throughout his life. In his late teens, rebellious and angry, he was confined within the framework of an oppressive apartheid-era educational system for five years, only to be conscripted for a two-year stint in the military from 1986. Then in 1990, finding himself confined to a small cubicle and a grim repetitive job (an experience which he says almost killed him), du Toit had in many ways come full circle. Recurring periods of confinement and the struggle to overcome them is a theme that runs throughout the artist’s life, and ultimately is at the root of his art. However, the joyous Miróesque palette du Toit absorbed as a youth and his curious figures that look like cartoon characters lead some critics to believe there is little beyond what Kim Gurney described as ‘aesthetically pleasing canvases ... with an anti-depressant dose of color’. 3 Undoubtedly, his brightly coloured paintings and sculptures are imbued with a strongly playful quality, but as Chris Roper poetically observed, ‘The bright colours mask the faces as a carnival grotesquerie that alludes more to the dark torment of the freak show carnie than the mundane hilarity of the circus clown.’ 4 Believing du Toit’s paintings are ‘... more of a reflection of reality than most people imagine’ 5, Roper touched on the crux of the struggle in du Toit’s works when he commented, ‘If you really look at them, you see torture, obsession and repression.’ 6
Confinement is clearly at the root of du Toit’s extensive series of ‘portraits’ from the late 1990s. Avoiding devices that tend to open up the picture plane, du Toit approached this body of work by repeatedly moving his viewfinder in close on the heads-and-shoulders of single cartoon-like figures confined within sharply imposed limits. An aggressive black outline and the placement of the figure against a stark background served to emphasize that the subject was not only imprisoned within the picture’s boundaries, but also within the pose. Combining these elements with a vibrant palette of primary and secondary colours, du Toit created a curious cast of colourful cartoonesque characters who stare out from the confines of the picture plane like exotic caged birds. As if looking out from a window, a woman in a red and yellow tunic gazes from the first ‘portrait’, painted in 1997 (pp.22, 41). Her strict boundaries are accentuated by a heavy black frame echoing the outline that holds her pose. In spite of du Toit’s playful approach to the rendering and the palette, two large sad eyes dominate the composition. It is however, the red, semi-heart-shaped lozenge mouth that charges the work with a paradoxical tension that causes it to teeter between humour and pathos. Conversely, nothing is paradoxical about ‘Bladeless’ of 1999 (p.22). Here a man in a yellow jersey with a clearly pained expression is held tightly within the borders of the picture-plane. Rendered in profile, the figure does not stare out at us, but rather we seem to be observing him in his agony. Du Toit’s ‘geometry of gawkiness’ 7 – the exaggerated grimace, the bulging eyes and hair standing on end - make it clear that the subject is the antithesis of a peaceful state.
On one hand ‘portrait’ 8 seems to be the correct term for du Toit’s traditionally composed paintings of the head and torso of a single subject. But if these are portraits, who are the sitters? It has been frequently suggested that many of the works are self-portraits, and that du Toit does not refute this is indicative of the likelihood that some of the pictures are charged with autobiographical elements. ‘Bladeless’ for example, is not only suggestive of a caricature of du Toit, but is a likely forerunner to the probable autobiographical yellow-headed red-eyed figure who showed up with P-for-Paul features, and appears in many paintings and sculptures. Autobiographical tendencies, however, do not constitute self-portraits. Du Toit has in fact indicated that his ‘portraits’ do not depict anyone specific. It is obvious that they were not painted from life, but rather invented. In this sense, they have more in common with the whimsical milieu of the cartoon and comic strip than with portraiture and figurative painting. Described by critic Chris Roper as ‘distorted faces [with] mutant eyeballs, zigzag smiles and startled grimaces’, 9 the paintings almost seem to be spoofs on portraiture - something one would expect to find hanging in the living room of Bart and Marge Simpson.
Modernism vis-à-vis post-Pop
Frequently described as influenced by Picasso, du Toit articulates and exaggerates the features of the subjects in his ‘portraits’ through the use of geometric forms and abstract elements. The use of outline, simultaneity, and an inclination toward synthetic cubism are indicative of his interest in Picasso. But a distinction has to be made between the influence of Picasso prior to the advent of Pop Art and after. As Kim Levin points out in Beyond Modernism, with the coming of Pop Art, ‘... Picasso’s formal manipulations were so familiar that they’d entered the realm of pop culture.’ According to Levin, Picasso’s style became ‘... a cliché to be quoted as much as any comic book or ad’.10 This is particularly true for artists like du Toit who were born after 1960, and who did not grow up with Modernist attitudes that made sharp distinctions between ‘high art’ and popular culture. The noted critic, Barbara Rose, lamented this in 1986, when she commented in an interview in the New Yorker: ‘There’s a generation now that feels you don’t have to make a distinction. Mickey Mouse, Henry James, Marcel Duchamp, Talking Heads, Mozart, ‘Amadeus’ – it all means kind of the same thing. And for that you have Andy Warhol to thank’.11 In the case of Paul du Toit, his art is one that is most informed by the blending of the influence of the cartoon with that of Picasso and Miró, and at times it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.
Particurlay relevant to du Toit’s oeuvre is the integration of the cartoon into the post-Pop Art, image-based painting that took root in the late ’60s and early ’70s in America and Europe, and soon spread beyond. At times critics have attempted to put such labels on this type of painting as Imagism, New Image Painting, and New Painting, but it is so broad and enduring that it outlives any attempt to pin it down. Although Western art has embraced an expressive approach to figurative painting since the early days of Modernism, this type of painting was revolutionized by the legitimatization that Pop Art brought to the cartoon. As a result of the impact of Warhol and the Pop Art of the ’60s, the comic-strip and cartoon became an increasingly influential resource for contemporary painters who had no hesitation in incorporating subjects and stylistic gestures gleaned from these sources into their art. The changes brought about by Pop Art opened the door to a non-dogmatic approach to painting that resulted in the mixing of expressionistic mannerisms of Modernism with the vocabulary of pop culture. 12 Added to this mix was a renewed attraction to naïf or self-taught art, which became increasingly influential in South Africa and increasingly integrated into the local avant-garde. The result was the development of an approach to image based art that according to the English critic Tony Godfrey was grounded in
‘... an awareness of the cultural and psychological fragmentation of the age.’ 13 In South Africa this approach to image making is succinctly articulated by Norman Catherine and Conrad Botes, who in their own unique ways blend comic book style drawing with international attitudes and local influences.
The free-wheeling imagism described by Godfrey and other critics cleared the way for ‘portraits’ like ‘Bladeless’, ‘Woman in a Red and Yellow Tunic’, and ‘Fashionista’ of 1997 (pp.22, 38). Heretofore this type of image-making, like Basil Wolverton’s remarkable 1954 MAD magazine cover, was strictly relegated to the realm of popular culture (not to be confused with Pop Art). The funky Picassoesque ‘portraits’ within the confines of the du Toit picture plane are not only informed by a blending of such cartoon-world machinations with those of modern masters, but by local influences as well. The du Toit ‘portraits’ also display a curious affinity with those in the window of the Blue Cut Hair Salon and similar establishments. Like the repeated heads-and-shoulders of local barbershop art, du Toit’s repeated ‘portraits’ depict assorted ‘types’ sporting their own brand of exotic hair-dos. And just as the artists who create barbershop art have cultivated a repetitive format as a means of illustrating a richly varied spectrum of hair-style possibilities, so too has du Toit cultivated a similar device for what Roper has described as ‘a ritualistic figuration and refiguration’ of the agony of a futile search for perfection. 14
It may have been ‘the agony of the search’ or the ‘figuration and refiguration’, that motivated du Toit to change his approach to painting in 1999. He describes it as no longer feeling challenged by the solitary nature of his representational art. Believing that he needed to work in a more abstract manner, du Toit once again turned to Miró for inspiration, saying, ‘Miró’s work is amazing because it was so natural. And what I realized and also read in one of his books, ... the more you work, it just happens and it comes out. But you’ve got to continually work at it. And then it sort of just clicks. Something clicks, and it happens. And you think, ‘Why didn’t I think of this earlier?’ But you can’t get to that stage without going through all the other processes.’ 15
Du Toit studied Miró’s work as part of a transitional process to facilitate a shift from a representational orientation to a more abstract approach. The effect of this effort became initially apparent in 1999, when the painting showed signs of moving away from the vocabulary of the image-based painting discussed above. This was the result of the shift toward abstraction and away from cartoon-like imagery. Du Toit, however, never completely abandoned the influence of the cartoon, and throughout 1999 and 2000, he produced a transitional series of abstracted heads, which at times seem to parody Modernism. Continuing with the same type of composition used throughout the 1997-99 works, his paintings of 1999 -2000 became looser and considerably less heavy-handed in the use of outline. As a result, the feeling of confinement, although still present, diminished in intensity. In ‘Fleet Commander’ of 1999 (pp.22, 50), we can see how du Toit loosened up considerably and began to move away from a cartoon-look. Although he is still working with outline, it is now much less aggressive and controlled. The influence of Miró is also present in the floating of compositional elements and the introduction of a palette of pure primary and secondary colours with an emphasis on blue. But the premise of the painting remains unchanged - upbeat colours with compositional elements that create a playful first impression, while infusing a tension between humour and pathos. The bright basic colours of ‘Fleet Commander’ as well as its buoyant lines and shapes are in contrast to the subtly rendered tearful eye and hesitant mouth. Employing the same device he used in ‘Woman in a Red and Yellow Tunic’, the prominent red mouth establishes an uncertainty if the expression is grim or joyful.
Abstract painting is a more predictable framework for emotional expression than the milieu of the cartoon, and when du Toit more fully embraces abstraction as he does in ‘Neo’ of 1999 (pp.22, 52), the emotional ambiguity begins to dissipate. Here the composition takes precedence over the representation, and such features as eyes, nose, ears and mouth become abstract elements that the artist manipulates like cut-outs of coloured paper. These features take on meaning by their positioning, their relationship to one another, and particularly their relationship to the black and white lozenge that reads as a mouth. The lozenge-shape and the manner in which it floats within the composition again harken back to the portrait, ‘Woman in a Red and Yellow Tunic’, while the black stripes on white indicate that this element has developed out of the cartoon-style grimace of ‘Bladeless’. Here the artist has taken a typical cartoon device and transformed it into an abstract element that he will repeatedly use as a signature passage in many paintings and sculptures. Representing a shift away from the contradictions employed in earlier works, the overall effect of ‘Neo’ is a unified front that begs a more personal response from the viewer.
Beyond the Picture Plane - ‘From within an inner centre the psyche seems to move outward’
‘Neo’ with its apparent reference to the early Modernists, speaks of an artist in transition looking to the past for inspiration. The restlessness that prompted this work was not just a longing for abstraction, it was also a time when du Toit began to feel a need to break out and move beyond the picture plane. As Carl Jung and physicist Wolfgang Pauli observed, ‘From within an inner center the psyche seems to move outward, in the sense of an extraversion, into the physical world.’ 16 Moving outward and breaking out of confinement is the driving force in the life and art of Paul du Toit. It is therefore not surprising that since 1998, du Toit has increasingly been drawn beyond the limits of the picture plane ‘into to the physical world’, and toward three-dimensional work. Travelling to Paris in May 1998 for his first solo exhibition, ‘Visitors from PlanetPaul’ at Galerie A’PART, du Toit became fascinated by the patinas and techniques of early twentieth century French bronzes. Upon his return home he cast the first of his sculptural works, ‘Ralph’ (p.122) and ‘Little Ralph’ (p.122), using the materials that were available to the French artists of the early 1900s. Described as personifying the painted ‘portraits’ of 1998, 17 ‘Ralph’ and ‘Little Ralph’ are the three-dimensional expression of the previously discussed cartoonesque head-and-shoulder paintings.
Closely related to the paintings, the major portion of the sculpture, like the first ‘Ralph’ pieces, are ‘portrait’ heads, which evolved into cut-out style heads in polychrome wood and bronze (pp.114, 122). These works are direct outgrowths from the paintings, which du Toit now considers to be blueprints for the sculpture. Continuing his push outward, in 2001 du Toit broadened his range to create a series of standing figures that includes ‘Still Standing’ (p.122), ‘Lean’ (p.123), and the triumphant ‘Still Moving’ (p.122). Evocative of tales of the golem and old Frankenstein flicks, ‘Still Standing’ and ‘Lean’ emphasize the childlike qualities du Toit cultivates in his art. Their block heads, square chests, and columnar limbs are rendered with a roughness which is disarming in the traditional medium of bronze. The heavy angularity of ‘Still Standing’ and ‘Lean’ is also evident in the three-part sculptural version of ‘Good Bad Ugly’ (p.123). The two (p.67) and three-dimensional (p.123) versions of this work illustrate the symbiotic relationship between du Toit’s sculpture and painting, and how paintings function as ‘blueprints’ for sculptures. Even though the sculptures often mirror the paintings, there are also important shifts in meaning that occur in translation from two dimensions to three. In the unpainted bronze version of ‘Good Bad Ugly’, for example, the auto-biographical figure (the figure on the left – previously recognized by his yellow head and red P-for-Paul eye) becomes more subdued and less aggressive. Although his familiar round head still sets him apart from the other two figures, he no longer seems to be the ‘fixed-point’.18
This same autobiographical figure is also the subject of the sculptural version of ‘Walk Unafraid’ of 2001 (p.123). Not unlike the rich assortment of standing polychrome figures found throughout Africa, the sculpture ‘Walk Unafraid’ is essentially a portrait of the yellow-headed figure from the ‘Walk Unafraid’ series. Painstakingly faithful to the two-dimensional version, the sculpture employs various painterly devices - particularly the use of outline. What is most compelling about this work is that it shows that du Toit never completely escaped the confines of the picture plane. He allowed the edges of the painting to determine the limits of the sculpture. The sculpture mirrors where the extremities of the figure are cut-off by the edges of the painting. In spite of the promise of sculpture as a means of breaking-out, in many cases du Toit retains the familiar borders of confinement.
This is not the case with the triumphant ‘Still Moving’ (p.122) of 2001. First sculpted in wood and canvas prior to being cast in bronze, it has been described by du Toit as alluding to his years in the hospital. ‘Still Moving’ is an abstracted, almost primitive work that du Toit created by initially wrapping canvas around an armature to suggest a figure bound in bandages. 19 This type of wrapping is most associated with Joseph Beuys, whose art has been of interest to du Toit. Beuys employed wrapping in his work as a reference to when as a shot-down World-War II pilot he was rescued by Tartars who rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to promote healing. A highly charged metaphor, the wrapping or binding of the human figure is universal in its significance and often references a spectrum of ideas around enslavement and confinement, and the struggle for physical as well as spiritual freedom. As illustrated by the Binding of Isaac, this age old theme has occupied humankind since its earliest days and is woven into the very fabric of spiritual and psychological exploration. Apart from Michelangelo’s famous ‘Bound Slaves’, ‘Saint Sebastian’ who survived execution by archers is art history’s quintessential bound figure. The point of such thematic exploration is almost always transcendence over the bonds of the physical world, just as ‘Still Moving’ celebrates transcendence and triumph over confinement and dependency. ‘Still Moving’ is a highly personal statement empowered by an awkwardness and extreme simplicity that counters its strong upright orientation and raised arms evocative of Hollywood’s triumphant Rocky. It is du Toit’s personal trophy for breaking out of confinement, the trophy that an 11 year old boy never received for making it on his own to the milk tanks.
Breaking the Bonds of Confinement
While du Toit was becoming increasingly involved in three-dimensional work, the transitional process in his painting, initiated in 1999, became fully articulated by 2001. The works from 2001 onward take on greater economy and cultivate a further intensified palette. They seem less informed by Modernism and other influences, and more informed by du Toit’s own processes and evolution. Although many of the paintings like ‘Trendsetter’ (p.65) and ‘Some Days are Better than Others’ (p.70), are still ‘portrait’ heads, works like the previously discussed ‘Social Hierarchy’ and ‘Good Bad Ugly’ depict more of the figure and incorporate multiple figures. Another phenomenon from this period is the zooming-in of the view-finder. In ‘Trace Elements’ and ‘Closely Related’, for example, du Toit has so closely moved in on the image that the ‘portrait’ becomes limited to only the eyes, nose and mouth. The result is a more abstract and minimal composition. It is at this time that du Toit also began a series of relief constructions and sculptures-in-the-round from found objects (p.115). These works, which are the result of fusing together polychrome industrial objects, take du Toit’s exploration of the ‘portrait’ in yet another direction.
In 2002 a major breakthrough in du Toit’s development was precipitated by a trip to Chapwani, a small island east of Tanzania and Zanzibar. Here he found inspiration in the dhows, the ancient sailing vessels that passed the island every morning and late afternoon on their way to destinations in the Indian Ocean. Fascinated by ‘the countless shapes of their wind-filled sails and rigging’, du Toit made drawings of the boats. He reworked the images and ‘turned them into abstract figures based on the human form.’ 20 These drawings became the basis of the ‘Zanzibar’ series (p.125), a group of nine sculptures that speak of liberation. With titles like ‘Adrift’, ‘Glow’, ‘Natural Motion’, ‘Above the Clouds’, and ‘Waves of Joy’, the ‘Zanzibar’ pieces are an anomaly within the confines of the greater du Toit oeuvre. Among the few works that are not limited to heads-and-shoulders, they are independent of paintings and more three-dimensional than du Toit’s other sculptures. The boat is an obvious symbol of freedom and du Toit used it to form figures - the ‘Zanzibar’ sculptures are boats transformed into men. Just as a thirteen year old bedridden du Toit transformed himself into a vessel to glide over the glossy waxed hospital floor, du Toit the artist transformed ancient sailboats into figures to break the bonds of confinement.
Although the sculptures of the ‘Zanzibar’ series are idiosyncratic within the du Toit oeuvre, they laid the groundwork for the development of a more expansive and liberated view. This became evident in the manner in which he fine-tuned his painterly devices to render new results from a familiar vocabulary. In ‘Dusk till Dawn’ of 2005 (p.11), for example, the figures are still placed tightly within boundaries of the picture plane, yet without the feeling of confinement; and the influence of the cartoon is strengthened, although the work is not cartoon-like. Also in 2005, du Toit paints an unprecedented 180 x 120 cm work, ‘Lights Electric’ (p.108). In this large-scale post-Zanzibar painting the cartoon, the childlike, and abstraction, coalesce to release four separate figures which are now active within the confines of the picture plane. The familiar yellow autobiographical figure is here as well, but in a much more extraverted role. What is most significant about ‘Lights Electric’ is that it represents a shift from the ‘portrait’ to the narrative.
More than just an artistic gesture, du Toit’s shift from the confines of the ‘portrait’ to the world of the narrative speaks of life experience. It speaks of a boy who lowered himself onto a hospital floor in an effort to satisfy his overwhelming thirst. And it speaks of the psyche moving outward to participate in the physical world. Writing in The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck noted, ‘... it is only when one has taken the leap into the unknown of total selfhood, psychological independence and unique individuality that one is free to proceed along still higher paths of spiritual growth ....’ 21 Du Toit’s shift from the confines of the ‘portrait’ is such a leap. It is an act of breaking out of confinement, an expression of liberation. And through this leap of spirit he is no longer bound by the confines of Paul du Toit.
Notes to pages 17-20
1. Brandon de Kock, ‘Introduction’, Paul du Toit: Sculptures / Paintings (Cape Town : Bell-Roberts Publishing and PlanetPaul, 2001), n.p.
The Power of the Unexpected, by Pippa Tsilik, Cape Town, 2006
Pippa Tsilik is a writer and editor based in Cape Town. The basis for the material in this essay was a series of discussions with Paul du Toit that took place at his home and studio in Hout Bay over several months during 2006, against the background of a long association with the artist and his work.
‘... the human body is not rigid but a flexible structure that moves by continuous shifting of weight from one supporting leg to the other, the main masses of the body moving in consonance with them.’ Helen Gardner 1
Brought up on the artworks of Miró, Picasso and the Moderns, Paul du Toit has been painting, drawing and looking at life through the eyes of an artist for most of his life. Asked what inspired him to begin the journey that brought him to where he is today, Paul replies that one of the main influences was seeing Michelangelo’s ‘David’ in Florence for the first time. In December 1992 Paul and his wife, Lorette, went on their first trip to Europe. Paul loved Italy and in particular Florence, where he was overwhelmed by the richness and abundance of the art. Of course, he went to see Michelangelo’s statue of ‘David’. Paul says, ‘I had an image in my mind of how it would look. I’d seen it in books ... but when I actually saw it ....’ He recalls entering the Galleria dell’ Accademia and passing through various rooms looking at exhibits, and then turning a corner and looking down the length of the hall to where the huge statue of David stands. ‘It was breathtaking,’ Paul says. That day he spent three hours there, studying it from every angle, totally engrossed.
He was fascinated by the work itself, and by the techniques used. He was awestruck by the scale of the 4,3 m high statue. Paul notes that this visit took place before the statue’s restoration of 2003-2004, which revealed much about Michelangelo’s techniques.
During that visit to Florence, Paul returned to Galleria dell’Accademia again and again, visiting not only ‘David’ but also collections of Michelangelo’s earlier and later works, including the preparatory works, unfinished works and plaster casts. Paul says these interested him ‘even more than the finished works’, as they exposed the process and intentions of the sculptor.
Paul notes in retrospect that although his own work has largely moved away from the representational, he found that he was able to relate easily to ‘David’. He was familiar with it and with the vocabulary of representational art, partly from poring over art books as a child.
So began Paul’s love affair with the art of Europe, which had already formed a background to his view of art and the creative process, and with which he was to reconnect in greater depth more than ten years later, when the Internet allowed him to access and study the works he had seen and the artists who created them.
Paul says this experience was ‘a huge turning point’ in his life, which inspired him to pursue art as a life choice. ‘It made me hungry to look, to search. And it’s always been like that since then, always wanting to see more.’
It is telling that of all the artworks Paul saw that holiday, it was the sculpture ‘David’ that fired his imagination, as opposed to, say, a painting. Up till then, Paul says he had worked with and made ‘small objects and small sculptures’. Clearly, Paul’s experience of ‘David’ changed his perceptions of the possibilities of the creative process, and the realization of this perception. It also becomes clear while talking to Paul that above all, sculpture is really his abiding love and passion.
It is also interesting to note that ‘David’, a freestanding sculpture of the nude male form in the classical tradition, represents the essence of modern sculpture from the Renaissance onwards. David’s defeat of Goliath epitomises the ideals of freedom, humanity and the concept of universal man that the Renaissance expressed. In addition ‘David’ embodies one of the important elements expressed in Paul’s work – the principle of weight-shift when showing motion in the human figure, explained in Gardner’s Art through the Ages as follows: ‘ ... the human body is not rigid but a flexible structure that moves by continuous shifting of weight from one supporting leg to the other, the main masses of the body moving in consonance with them.’ 1 We see this for example in the ‘Walk Unafraid’ series of paintings of 2001 (pp.21, 73) and in the sculptures ‘Still Standing’, ‘Still Moving’ and ‘Lean’ of the same year (pp.122-123), and to some extent in certain of the works on paper of 2004/2005 (p.99), where the lifted left foot strongly emphasizes the weight-shift.
So began Paul’s study of and fascination with the human form. Thinking about Paul’s experience of ‘David’, it is perhaps not hard to see why much of his work, particularly the later work, focuses on the standing human form. It seems that Paul is searching for the essence of the expression of the human form; one person in many, many versions. He explores the elements that make a human being, as well as the physical form and what it expresses. He examines the feelings and states of mind that the human form embodies. He explores how these human elements present, and ultimately he asks the question: who are we? His figures express a range of emotions - humour, uncertainty, pride, attitude, fear, constraint, bravery, bravado. These expressions are reflected in the titles of the works, for example ‘Still Standing’, ‘Still Moving’, ‘Lean’, ‘Walk Unafraid’, ‘Trendsetter’, ‘Come Together’, ‘On Solid Ground’, ‘Balancing Act’, ‘Happy Campers’, ‘Stepping Out’ and ‘Tumble’.
Dark days 1992-1993
Prior to Paul’s trip to Italy in 1992, as sanctions against South Africa kicked in, Paul had lost his job as a computer programmer. He began another job in the same field, which he describes as ‘a desk-job in a cubicle’. At night he painted in his garage. Every morning on his way to work in Johannesburg, Paul passed the buildings of the Wits University Fine Arts Department, but his longstanding dream of studying art seemed to be becoming ever more remote.
After his trip to Italy, Paul returned to Johannesburg determined to explore and practise art, whatever it took. But the road was not to be an easy one. With little money to pay for materials, let alone to study art, Paul’s early paintings portray a dark, urban landscape peopled with cartoon characters. He painted on masonite, which was cheap, using the rough side for its interesting texture. He worked with oils and acrylics, often using a palette knife.
One of the few remaining paintings from this period is ‘Two my Friends’ (p.34) of 1994. Here we see Paul experimenting with texture, using a cut-out in the centre of the work, and scratching away wet paint to reveal the wood beneath. The piece reflects Paul’s interest in etchings at that time. We also see the beginnings of distortions in the figures, and glimpse the artist’s interest in cartoons and comics in the portrayal of the odd, outlandish, slightly humorous characters, as well as a fascination with the geometric conceptualization of Aztec art.
The plastic fish - 1994
Although Paul was concentrating mostly on painting at this time, he produced sculptures too. He used mostly found materials, mainly scrap plastic, but he was dogged by a concern that his work might be taken for nothing more than a hobby. He worked almost in secret in his garage, wondering if he was betraying his dream, until, on a trip to Paris, he saw sculptures made of polyurethane foam, metal drums and plastic in the sculpture garden behind the Louvre. He liked the crudeness of these very abstract forms, as well as their ‘amazing balance’. He was fascinated by the mixture of objects and materials, and says he felt, ‘Wow - I want to do that. It is so simple – it’s like playing.’ This ‘aha’ response was coupled with an awareness of the possibilities of building large sculptures from found materials. Paul responded intuitively to the power and presence they conveyed. Of this process of inspiration, Paul says, ‘You get influenced every now and then by something you see – you’re scanning things you see around you and then either blocking them out or somehow feeding on them. You see something that fits into your growth of ideas and vision at that stage, it fits into your conceptualization of things and helps you jump to the next stage. These objects are great to use as a starting point – or as a reference point to come back to later.’
In 1994, Paul entered a series of three sculptures of fish made from found plastic objects in a competition run by the Association of Arts in Bellville, Cape Town (p.154). He sent off the sculptures without telling anyone, and virtually forgot about them. A few months later he heard that he had won first prize for Best Artist with No Formal Training. This recognition gave Paul the confidence he needed to take his love for sculpture seriously, and encouraged him to renew his efforts to become self-supporting as an artist, and spend all his time on his art.
A place to paint 1996-1997
After Paul and his family moved to Cape Town at the end of 1995, Paul for the first time had a place where he could paint. Admittedly this room beneath the house measured a mere 1 m x 3 m, and to view a picture properly he had to take it outside or open the door. But the room had a sea-facing window, and he moved all his previous paintings and sculptures, as well as his PC, into it. This was a turning point for Paul, and he acknowledges the advantages of having ‘a space dedicated to creating art’.
These changes in Paul’s life almost immediately inspired a new vision and he began experimenting with a new medium. From the leftover building materials of the house renovations he salvaged a quantity of cement filler, used for fixing holes and cracks in walls. He mixed it into a paste and began to apply it to small home-made canvas stretchers. ‘I scratched various images into the plaster type compound and painted it with acrylic paint after it was dry.’ His subject matter was mostly individual heads. Paul says, ‘The work was mostly determined by the consistency of the paste material – you can’t put much detail into it. The medium only forms a certain type of furrow and once you make a mark you can’t rework it. For example the shape of the eyes was determined by those constraints. Although the medium wasn’t ideal, the textures were quite nice,’ he adds. This impasto technique became intrinsic to Paul’s work. At the same time, the depth of the line and the plastic, moulded textures constantly evoke and link to work in the round. Even in his paintings Paul’s work almost always evokes sculpture – we see it in the thickness and depth of the line and in the sheer mass suggested by the forms. He is always instinctively pulled towards three-dimensional work, even when working in paint, and this is very clear in his impasto work.
Struggling to sell his paintings he continued to paint at night, with galleries showing little interest in this newcomer. He also gave up his fruitless attempts to sell a computer software product he had developed, and spent most of his days windsurfing or in a local street café, talking to the people passing through.
PlanetPaul (and Paul’s website of the same name) was born out of these days. He inhabited a no-man’s land between home, his studio, the beach, his windsurfer, and the street café. Strangely enough, this apparent limbo turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Paul made some useful contacts and met a host of interesting people who fed his creativity. The street café became his ‘office’, and the owners invited him to put some of his paintings up on the walls. Paul sold a number of them, including one that occupied a small space on the wall behind the cash register. He painted ‘Private Beach’ in this period. Originally sold for about R500, the director of a well-known international news network would offer the collector $10 000 for it about a year later (although the collector declined the offer). Paul’s professional world had been limited up to this point, but from then on it began to open up as opportunities and possibilities came within his reach.
The new style Paul developed at this time reflects some of this excitement and interest. As Sanford Shaman says in his essay, ‘The Confines of Paul du Toit’, Paul ‘created a curious cast of colourful cartoonesque characters who stare out from the confines of the picture plane like exotic caged birds’. 2 An example is ‘Woman in a Red and Yellow Tunic’ of 1997 (pp.22, 41).
Many of Paul’s works at this time show elements of clown features. Paul recalls, as a boy, seeing a clown while waiting in a queue for circus tickets. The clown was wearing his clown outfit but was not yet made up. Without the obligatory, red, banana-shaped smile, the clown looked sad, and the image stayed with Paul for years afterwards. His childhood drawing of a ‘serious clown’ shows where his later interest in the clown originated (p.153). Chris Roper said of Paul’s works of this period, ‘The bright colours mask the faces as a carnival grotesquerie that alludes more to the dark torment of the freakshow carny than the mundane hilarity of the circus clown.’ 3 Thus Paul began observing the human face and breaking it down into features and lines, beginning with the curve of the mouth, with its bitter-sweet ambiguity. In his later works he analyses and dissects the face over and over again, capturing expressions and feelings in a few well-chosen lines.
With the success of selling his paintings, Paul began painting fulltime, now using canvases as well as masonite and other formats.
One of the people Paul met at the street café worked in computers. He introduced Paul to the Internet which had just taken off in South Africa and with which Paul had some experience from a previous job. He bought a modem and, using his previous knowledge and some DIY books about the Internet, began to explore the possibilities of the Web. Suddenly he had access to the art world he had fallen in love with in Europe.
For the first time Paul was able to spend almost unlimited time studying art, artists and major art trends throughout the world. He sat for hours downloading information over a dial-up connection at night, when most South African users were offline and the Internet worked faster. Having been brought up on modern art books featuring artists such as Klee, Picasso and Miró, he now swallowed information voraciously, poring over artworks, and articles about artists such as Frank Stella, Dubuffet, and many others. Paul soon discovered the joys of Amazon.com, from which he ordered art books that he read from cover to cover, studying the lives and works of various artists that he admired. He also studied the work of artists with no formal training, like himself, such as Henri Rousseau. He was fascinated by naïve art and Outsider art. Paul grappled with questions about the position of the artist with no formal training – how does one gain recognition? What are the constraints for an artist without a traditional art-school background and training? Is there merit in the idea that the untrained artist benefits by being uncorrupted and untainted by classical training? Paul also investigated children’s art, and was interested in the fact that Miró said he had not wanted to study art. Over time, Paul created a database of information - a digital library - about the art and artists of the 20th century. Still struggling to sell his paintings and realizing that the European market was far larger than the South African one, he also hoped to gain insight into the great artists’ paths to success.
Because of the time difference, people in other parts of the world such as the US were awake and online when Paul was on the Internet at night. He visited art chat forums where art curators and gallery owners were discussing artists and trends in art. He was able to contact and correspond with them as well as with other artists, art critics and collectors, using the new tool of email and the availability of information on websites. ‘I was making up for lost time,’ Paul says, keenly aware of the fact that he had not gone the traditional, accepted art school route. Paul realized the potential of the Internet as both a tool for finding information and making contacts, as well as the basis for an electronic portfolio. Many of Paul’s business contacts and relationships began with an initial meeting on the Internet, for example Kóan Jeff Baysa, who curated Paul’s first New York exhibition in 2004.
Paul notes how differently the art world functions overseas in comparison with South Africa. The open discussions and free flow of information about art, artists, trends and upcoming exhibitions in North America and Europe made it easier for Paul to exhibit work there, for example Paul’s short film video installation, ‘Origins of Modern Human’: channel surfing, exhibited in Moscow in 1999. In contrast, he notes, in South Africa information for and about art and artists is largely routed through certain accepted channels and is not easily available to all.
Paul’s enthusiasm at discovering the art world through the Internet helped to fuel his work and development as an artist. He likens the Internet experience to being in a library, which he says had a ‘huge influence’ on him as a child. He loved being online in the middle of the night, connected to people on the other side of the world where everyone was still awake. The efficiency and speed of the Internet, along with the instantaneous access it gave to vast amounts of information was exciting and inspiring. This experience and the energy it released was partly responsible for keeping Paul on course with his work, through a time which otherwise was difficult. It is not insignificant that he kept his PC in his ‘studio’. For Paul, computing power seems to provide a ‘digital connect’.
In the meantime Paul was still struggling to show and sell his work and it didn’t take him long to realize the potential of the Internet and the World Wide Web as a tool for marketing. At this point, Paul’s knowledge of computer programming became extremely useful. Having written his own programmes and with some knowledge of the workings of the Internet from his previous jobs, Paul was fascinated and ready to create his own website. Learning the programming language (code) needed to design a website interested him, and he still does his own web design himself. He remembers with amusement how at that time one had to write paragraphs of programming code to move a picture one centimeter to the left or right, whereas today creating and designing a website is pretty much a paint-by-numbers exercise.
Even the name for his new website, PlanetPaul, developed out of the experience of discovering the Internet. When the registration process required a name for the site, he remembered that everyone who saw his paintings of somewhat strange characters at that time asked him what planet he (and they) came from ... and the choice of a name became obvious. The website, PlanetPaul, was launched, with a grand total of five paintings. From then on, PlanetPaul itself also became a place that Paul was able to ‘link to’ in his head, as part of his creative process. The Internet was just another medium for Paul, where he combined the energy, efficiency and creativity of his programming skills with his own artwork.
4 am on PlanetPaul
Staying up all night on the Internet set a pattern in Paul’s life where some of his most vivid thoughts and ideas take shape either in the middle of the night or just before waking, in the lonely pre-dawn hours. He says, ‘Artists live in their heads. Some days I don’t talk to anyone. I’m totally absorbed in what I’m doing, the creative process ... The visual artist essentially works alone. Sculpture, on the other hand, is more involved with people – you talk to suppliers, people involved in the process.’
Paul ascribes some of this sense of aloneness to the urgency and lack of time he constantly feels. He says he always has a sense of running out of time and needing to catch up. Because he works with different media, in every series there is always something else to try and another medium to experiment with. ‘There’s no time; as soon as one series is done, I move onto the next idea, thinking I can return to the previous one and there’ll be more time, but mostly it doesn’t happen. ...You are working all the time, always thinking, storing things away.’ The problem of lack of time explains Paul’s general attitude to competitions, which is ‘Never enter them. They’re not good for you!’ He recalls that, because there is always so much for the artist to do, Georgia O’Keefe said that the only way to be able to work in peace is to have three shows ready to go.
And the beat goes on
Life on PlanetPaul is linked with another important influence in Paul’s work, which is music. Music for him is part of the creative process. He grew up on the music of the punk era, such as the Sex Pistols. Since they were banned in South Africa during the 1980s, Paul recalls that his main source of music was a neighbour who travelled to and from the UK and brought back the latest music.
With MTV and VH1 always on in his studio, Paul frequently watches music documentaries. On one occasion he was struck by the way musicians work together in promoting one another and the music industry itself. He sees similarities between the world of visual arts and performing arts, aware that many performing artists began their careers in painting or at art school. ‘It dawned on me that this is how you build up a career, you act on things, you put them together.’ References to songs turn up in many titles of Paul’s work.
The Internet provided Paul with more than just information and new energy. His guess that his website would become a virtual gallery was totally correct. At the end of 1997, the owner of Parisian gallery A’PART saw the paintings on the website and invited Paul for a solo exhibition in 1998. Paul sold all of the twenty-five paintings on exhibition, giving him another push to keep going. Furthermore it gave him the ready cash he needed to explore the possibilities of bronze sculpture for the first time.
There were other benefits from this exhibition. Instead of working from outside the art world, Paul finally met people who not only wanted to help him, but were in a position to do so. He also realized that to continue painting fulltime he needed more international exposure, since at that time many of his buyers lived in Europe.
Furthermore, while Paul was in Paris this time, his interest in sculpture received another impetus. The gallery where his exhibition was showing was opposite the Picasso Museum, with a sculpture garden at the back housing many of Picasso’s sculptures. Paul visited this sculpture garden every day, absorbing everything he could. He also visited museums and galleries studying the techniques used to create bronzes a century ago by the likes of Rodin, and the early works of Picasso and Matisse. Picasso’s ‘Head of a Woman’ inspired Paul in the creation of his bronzes, ‘Ralph’ and ‘Little Ralph’ (p.122). Paul found these heads fascinating, especially the way the head is split asymmetrically, with each side of the face presented from a different point of view.
Bronze sculpture: Ralph and Little Ralph
When Paul returned from the Paris exhibition he was determined to explore the possibilities of bronze sculpture. ‘Because of the success of the paintings, I desperately wanted to get back to sculpture,’ he says of this time. He met a local sculptor, Al Barnes, who worked with bronzes, doing largely representational work. Paul had already worked a fair amount with ceramics and, with Barnes’ help, Paul made his first bronze from a ceramic sculpture. He was fascinated by the technique and process of making bronzes, which dates back 4,000 years, and he wanted to use the original techniques.
Paul’s first encounter with the bronze casting process, like all beginnings, was not all plain sailing. When casting ‘Ralph’ there was a problem with the mould so that the sculpture got stuck. The latex mould around the original, which must set before the next step takes place, had still not set after three days. ‘It was a disaster,’ Paul said. This meant that Paul could only cast one ‘Ralph’ bronze, instead of several. For this reason he made the smaller ‘Little Ralph’ as well. In a lighter vein, Paul says he called his first bronzes ‘Ralph’ and ‘Little Ralph’, ‘because Ralph is the name of your most dependable best friend, the one who doesn’t freak out if you get sick in his car...’.
An important part of the bronze casting process is the creation of a surface finish, or patina. Raw bronze has a goldish pallor so a chemical finish is usually applied, giving it a darker colour and finish. (Patina is the thin sheen which develops on the surface of a metal over time, caused by aging and/or oxidation. In bronze sculpture, patina refers to the surface of the bronze itself, often created by the sculptor using chemicals.) Nowadays sculptors can create certain effects and colours and achieve uniformity using chemicals, which the sculptors of a century ago were unable to do. At that time, sculptors were limited to a certain number of colours that were defined by the way in which weather and aging affected the bronzes. Paul loved the colours of the surfaces of the old bronzes he had seen in Paris, which were often finished with a wax or polish. Paul faithfully followed the original methods for bronze casting and finishing as used by Modern masters such as Rodin, Miró, Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi, as opposed to the new patinas and methods for speeding up the process popular in recent years.
Paul says that with contemporary methods, there is no longer an element of chance or the possibility of an unexpected outcome because it is now possible to control the process and end-result completely. It was important to him to use the older methods and explore the variations and the surprise element of uncertain results - the element of the unexpected, the unpredictable, which he always pursues in his work with different media. He prefers ‘the changes and variations that are a natural result of the process, rather than controlling the whole thing’. When creating bronzes Paul always tries to experiment and make changes. Before and during the casting process, he worked with the team at the foundry to explore the possibilities of variations in the process. ‘In the end they let me work on my own there and do certain things myself. Once you understand the rules, you can create your own variations. That’s the only way you will arrive at something you want to create – through exploration and new discovery.’
Paul had also seen sculptures in nickel and aluminium in Paris, and particularly liked the natural shine of nickel. This led him to experiment with other metals. As he puts it, ‘The purist would only work in bronze, and the finished product could only look a certain way.’ This style goes along with representational work, which Paul had moved away from. His interest in nickel led him to cast one of the ‘Little Ralphs’ and one bigger ‘Ralph’ in this metal. ‘This medium has a more contemporary look that I wanted to try out,’ Paul says. ‘The effect is amazing - the metal is hard, and the finish looks very slick and machined,’ he says. Although he liked it, he hasn’t gone back to this medium since things have moved on once again. ‘It taught me a lot, doing it in the original way,’ he says of the experience of casting the bronzes.
Future Fantastic 1998 – 1999
Paul’s excitement at seeing Picasso’s work in Paris fuelled not only the ‘Ralph’ sculptures, but also brought a new influence to the development of Paul’s painting. After the Paris exhibition, the paintings became more geometric and abstract, with a stronger cartoon-like element. As Sanford Shaman says, ‘In the case of Paul du Toit, his art is one that is most informed by the blending of the influence of the cartoon with that of Picasso and Miró, and at times it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.’ 4
Paul’s paintings of this time seem to pose a series of questions both to themselves and to the viewer: who is this and what is he looking at? Who am I and how do I fit into this world? What is going on and why do I feel like this? The paintings conjure emotional and metaphysical states, where the questions are glued together by the thick sea of colour. The people in the paintings look inward, as does the viewer. Sometimes the focus is on physical sensations such as balance, while other paintings make the viewer aware of the sense of oneself within one’s body, and perceptions such as how one feels in one’s skin.
The success of the Paris exhibition seemed to bring Paul recognition overnight. In 1998, he exhibited in Germany, appeared on a CNN arts programme, took part in a Virtual Internet Gallery exhibition, and participated in four exhibitions in South Africa. This included his first solo exhibition, ‘Future Fantastic’, at Bang The Gallery in Cape Town.
At the same time, Paul was working on a series of wooden sculptures. Unfortunately, few of these remain in the artist’s possession since most were sold almost immediately, Paul notes with regret. He says that these works were ‘an extension of the paintings’, even using the same paint in primary colours. Their bright geometric forms are balanced and solid, evidence of Paul’s growing confidence. From this point forward, as Paul says, ‘sculpture just flowed’.
Walking unafraid 2000 – 2001
Paul’s sculpture and paintings during these years reflect his growing confidence (pp.21, 73). From here on, he says, his paintings have served as blueprints for sculptures, but have also provided inspiration and served as reference points.
Sculptures from found steel
Paul worked in wood, plasticine and bronze and also reverted to his familiar mode of working with found materials, especially steel. This time he used engine parts and other steel objects, which he welded together and painted with automotive paints. From these he produced a series of heads, where the features are constructed of nuts, bolts, cogs, wheels and other spare parts. Using this medium he further deconstructed the human head and features. ‘Superlative’ (p.115) and ‘First Gear’ (p.116) were selected for the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Sculpture (2002), while Tin Soldier won a 5th prize (sculpture section) at the international Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art (2001). Paul recalls that in returning to Florence this time to exhibit his work, he felt he had come full circle from that first view of ‘David’ a decade before.
In the relief sculptures of faces, built from the same variety of found industrial metal, Paul welded the ‘features’ directly onto an iron grid, or onto each other, further simplifying the forms. Here we see the origins of the cogs-and-wheels eyes, the negative spaces and metal-grid of the mouths in the paintings.
Some of this work developed from time spent with artist and sculptor, Willie Bester. Paul had admired Bester’s work, in particular his large sculptures made from found steel objects. The two bumped into each other at an art exhibition in Cape Town and Bester, who had seen Paul’s sculptures in wood, suggested that they would look good in metal. Thus began an exchange of ideas between the two artists at Bester’s studio. Paul found Bester’s work and methods interesting and the two worked together for some time, each on his own project and giving each other input, visiting scrap yards together and suggesting suitable found objects for each other’s work. During this period of working at Bester’s studio, they made a stair rail for Paul’s studio from found steel.
Paul says, ‘Art is so solitary... you’re so involved in what you’re doing. It’s inspiring to get out and see what other people are doing. Working with someone else provides an opportunity for a cross-pollination of ideas that pushes you - challenges you, as each of you makes suggestions, ‘Why don’t you try such-and-such?”
Although Paul says that his paintings are a blueprint for the sculptures, at the same time the paintings of that period were also increasingly influenced by the sculptures and seemed to grow out of the inspiration the sculptures provided. The paintings became more abstract, more focused on the composition of the features, as we see in the simple lines and metal-grid mouth of ‘Trendsetter’ (p.65) compared with the features of ‘Blank’ (p.75). The canvases are large. These paintings have a strong sculptural quality created by the heaviness of the medium and the impasto technique, which create depth, both real and suggested.
In the ‘Walk Unafraid’ series of paintings (pp.21, 73),
exhibited at the Bell-Roberts gallery in 2001, in a solo exhibition, the whole human figure is at last exposed. These figures have legs (albeit cut off at the knees) and seem to be ready to burst out of the frame. In the bronzes of 2001, ‘Still Standing’, ‘Still Moving’ and ‘Lean’, the human figure emerges (pp.122-123).
Zanzibar - 2002
Paul’s work continued to develop through experimentation with the nuances of new and different textures, paints and other media. He began to keep notebooks and diaries, and to record images, perceptions and sketches wherever he went, and whenever he had time. His work reflected and was inspired by the structures and forms that he saw around him.
On a 2002 trip to Zanzibar, Paul spent hours watching and sketching the tall elegant lines of dhows as they entered and left the harbour every morning and evening. ‘The way the sails were controlled fascinated me. The countless shapes of their wind-filled sails and rigging were etched against the beautiful surroundings. I started drawing and reworking these images. Using the shapes, I turned them into abstract figures based on the human form. The idea of turning them into sculptures came later when I figured out that I could use iron rods to draw these shapes. The gaps are filled with a solid compound and this gives a fantastic balanced three-dimensional form with certain primitive qualities. These forms provide endless viewpoints with inexhaustible and infinite possibilities. I want to sculpt them all...’ 5
On his return home, these observations resulted in a series of bronze sculptures. These dhow-people, each about 20cm high, were built with wire bodies supported on skeletons of iron rods, with the spaces being filled with a solid compound of iron filings and gypsum. In some of these sculptures the wind leans into the shoulders; in others the shoulders set sail on the wind. In ‘On Solid Ground’ and ‘Balancing Act’ (p.125) the torso bellies out as the wind catches the sail. In ‘Windward’ (p.126), a later sculpture of the same year made from a single piece of rusted, found wire, we still see the effects of the sail-shoulders leaning into the wind. In all these sculptures, the delight in balance and the perfect match of medium to form are evident.
Cutting loose 2003-2004
Later paintings of 2003 – 2004 reflect the effects of the three-dimensional ‘Zanzibar’ series. The lines of the dhows became a further structural influence on the forms Paul was creating. The long, slightly wind-blown, vertical and diagonal lines of the paintings are reminiscent of sails, and the strong vertical and horizontal lines suggest mast and boom. These paintings show a number of influences, brought together by the strong, supporting structural lines (p.91). The focus has moved from the face as the painter’s canvas to the long verticals of the standing figure – etched in uneven strokes. We see here the translation from the lines of the tall dark masts of dhows to the verticals of the standing figure, but these are matched now with an off-centre balance, as though each face is a sail – strung on the armature of mast and yardarm. The lines of the wire that Paul used to build the Zanzibar sculptures have been translated into the frames and bones which hold these ‘portraits’ together. The long black horizontals create both movement and stasis at the same time.
Cut and paste
Another facet that grew out of Paul’s experience of Zanzibar was the exploration of ‘cutouts’ as Paul calls them. This was a technique where Paul used pieces of canvas from paintings that he had cut up, as he was not satisfied with them. The pieces were then pressed into the wet paint of a new canvas, creating another dimension or a relief element in the flat painting. For Paul, they echoed the patches on the sails of the dhows (p.105).
This series introduced a completely new range in the artist’s palette, which absorbed textures and nuances – the deep browns of the dhow sails, along with flesh-tones, soft greys and powder blue. The use of these canvases influenced Paul’s palette, which develops into a more textured one, reminiscent of Jackson Pollock.
Paul also used these cut up pieces of canvas to create monoprints on glass, thereby getting a reverse print of the image. Paul would apply ink to the raised surface of these pieces of canvas using a printer’s roller. This added a further dimension and a deeper texture. The pieces of canvas were already rough and made an interesting print.
This work was partly inspired by sketches Paul was making in his notebooks in felt-tipped pen. The ink would bleed through to the back of the page creating negative and positive forms. Paul often found that the negative image was more dynamic.
Once again, in both the monoprints and the cut-out series, Paul’s work focuses on the individual figure and how that figure relates to the world. His work involves a continual reorganisation of the self, in response to his perception of the self (not necessarily his own) in the world. The carefully-chosen titles of Paul’s works reflect this thinking process, adding another dimension to the triangular relationship between the artist, the artwork and the viewer.
Works on paper 2004
In 2004, Paul began for the first time to explore the possibilities of working in mixed media on paper, using oils, acrylics and ink. In these paintings he continued to simplify – or abstract - his perception of the human form. It has been distilled into a stick figure – with an oblong head suspended on two wobbly stork-legs. And the upturned L-foot gives the only hint that this tall head on legs could possibly stand. It is this same L-foot that in the 2005 paintings seems to bracket and hold some of the figures and forms, if not the composition, together (p.99).
This characteristic upturned left foot suggests motion through weight-shift, a concept Paul had worked with previously. It gives the figure ‘a leg to stand on’. It is reminiscent of the reversed L in Paul’s signature and has become part of his artistic vocabulary (or alphabet, as Paul calls it). Sometimes this foot taps to the beat of music; at other times it takes a step. Either way, this figure is ready to go, with his best foot forward, and it creates an upbeat, whimsical result.
Through the eyes of a child
The visualizations of the works on paper came about partly because of Paul’s work with children. When one of his children expressed a difficulty with drawing Paul started working with them, sitting around the table in the evenings. At about the same time Paul began to give workshops at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Through this experience he learnt to value children’s observations about his work and found them to be keenly perceptive of the dynamics involved, offering observations about colour, form and line. This work with children gave Paul the freedom to ‘play’ with these childlike images. The simple, cartoony faces are balanced perfectly by the stylized bodies. The moon-heads are supported on two wobbly legs, and somehow the image works perfectly, so well-placed is each line, each detail. The lines are sure; the purpose is quite clear and definite. The thick crayon and the reinforcing of a dark line with a coloured line enhances these ‘studies’.
Working with children gave Paul an insight into the way children perceive art and drawing. It also helped him understand how adults see children’s art and how children see their own art. It is the very naiveté of children’s art which bothers the child artist ‘because it doesn’t look right’, and at the same time appeals to the adult observer. To the adult observer the child’s ability to capture the absolute basics of a figure or a form and to execute them in the simplest way is both appealing and challenging. Clearly it is this simplicity which links children’s art to the abstraction of form, and to abstract art itself. At an exhibition of children’s drawings, Pablo Picasso is famously quoted as saying, ‘When I was the age of these children I could draw like Raphael. It took me many years to learn how to draw like these children.’
The experience of working with children thus gave Paul an opportunity to think further about what art means in terms of representation as opposed to abstraction, and what the links are between the two. Ironically, where the child is frustrated by his or her inability to represent a figure realistically, the observer may enjoy the child’s apparent liberation from the literal form, which is interpreted as abstraction.
Through his work with children Paul studied those elements that appeal to the observer’s sense of the fundamental. He developed this aspect in his own composition and rendering of the human form. These influences are clear and put to good use in compositions such as ‘Lights Electric’ (p.108) and ‘Happy Campers’ (p.103).
New York September 2004
In 2004, Paul exhibited in New York for the first time, at the former Jack Tilton Gallery in SoHo. Hitherto unknown in the States, Paul looked forward to this opportunity of gaining exposure in the New York art world. On top of this, four works were sold; not bad for a first show. One of them was a very large work called ‘Crew’ (p.79) of 2,4 x 1,5 m. The exhibition was covered in New York Art. An essay by Kóan Jeff Baysa, the curator of this exhibition, appears on page 15 of this catalogue.
Seen from all sides 2005
The experience of working with children had another spinoff. Both when working with his own children and when giving workshops at the children’s hospital, Paul and the children worked around a drawing lying on a table, each one drawing from his or her own viewpoint and side of the table. They often drew human figures, each working on his own on one large sheet of paper. Later, Paul would re-evaluate the painting in terms of which view provided the best balance and composition, and add elements that completed it. This experience led Paul to study faces and features from different perspectives, and experiment with drawing them so that they would be recognisable whether upside down or right side up. Soon Paul found himself creating artworks with a multi-faceted point of view (p.3).
Paul also began to use forms and images he noticed while playing games with children, for example the lattice chalked on the ground in the game of four-square, where children throw a stone into a large square divided into four equal smaller squares. This motif appears in many of Paul’s paintings.
Working with children was liberating and a source of inspiration for Paul. The opportunity to see artworks through their eyes helped him see other possibilities in his own work at this time. The process of working on canvases from all four sides allowed the development of a broader and richer composition, incorporating multiple figures. In some of the larger canvases of this period, we see a much stronger, more complex and interesting compositional element at work.
In ‘Lights Electric’ (p.108), the detail provided by the stubby fingers and hair create focal ‘corners’ that balance the figures around the canvas. The interplay between the receding and advancing planes creates depth and tension, a new element in Paul’s work. In general, Paul’s work with children gave both a new complexity and dimension to his work on canvas, and opened up the path to a richer, more abstract formulation of the picture surface. Furthermore, as Sanford Shaman says, ‘What is most significant about ‘Lights Electric’ is that it represents a shift from the ‘portrait’ to the narrative.’ 6 There is clearly a ‘story’ in this composition, which both intrigues and delights us.
Interestingly, the strong descending diagonal band of light that holds ‘Lights Electric’ together is reminiscent of the composition of the centre panel of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. There are other similar elements such as the division of the painting into two triangles created by the bright diagonal from the top left hand corner, the use of the figures’ banana-fingers that contrast with the background, the almost disembodied heads, and the strong downward flow of light from the top left hand corner of the canvas. However, the similarity ends there, since ‘Lights Electric’ encompasses a strong circular flow around the almost empty centre of the canvas, created by the four figures.
Through this work Paul further enriched his vocabulary of images and shapes, within a context of a much more complex picture plane. He says that he finds no challenge in doing representational work; what drives him is the desire to create something that no one has seen before. And perhaps what lies behind this is his ability to perceive and translate, coupled with a willingness to allow the unexpected nature of different media and experiences to contribute to the end result. Most of this work was shown at a sell-out exhibition, ‘Off the Wall’, in February at the Erdmann Contemporary, Cape Town.
Stepping out – sculptures in resin
In 2005, Paul for the first time worked with sculptures in fiberglass and resin, for example the 53 cm ‘Stepping Out’ (p.117), and 2.2 m ‘Tumble’. In the latter, we see the artist once again toying with the human form – this time by inverting it. The lightness of the line seems to have developed from the works on paper of 2004, and the work once again reflects Paul’s interest in the sculptures of Dubuffet and Picasso. In this sculpture, we see the artist’s rendition of a face that is perfectly balanced from both upside down and right side up, since the nose convinces as a nose from both points of view. Above all, like the children Paul worked with, the artist is having fun.
The medium is the message - 2006
Drawn to abstraction
One of Paul’s major projects of 2006 was the work he did on wet paper at the Dieu Donné Paper Mill in New York. These works were shown at an exhibition, ‘Drawn to Abstraction’, at the Erdmann Contemporary in Cape Town in May 2006 and are discussed in essays on pages 15 and 128 of this book.
Paul is constantly inspired by his observations about his travels. He realizes that this is a process whereby he continually adds to his artistic vocabulary, which he calls ‘finding [his] alphabet’. The very words and letters of the notes of his diary in his changing moods and visual pictures create images for the next work. This, for Paul is part of the creative process; he records perceptions of the places he visits, noting details that range from the colours of the rails on a London bus, to the waitress’s notes on a menu from a trendy London restaurant (p.30).
Paul’s experiments with media constantly give him new ideas. Recently he started using a PC tablet to draw sketches for commissioned works, and found this was an easier way to present the works. It required him to hold the pen in a different way, creating a hesitant, uncontrolled line reminiscent of children’s drawings, which he liked. This element is visible in many paintings at this time, for example ‘Happy Campers’ (p.103).
Paul’s preoccupation with perspective and point of view at this time led him to try using a new tool with which to apply paint. Feeling that he needed more distance between himself and the painting as he applied the paint, he attached a brush to the end of a stick, creating a tool of about 1,2 m. ‘When I use this tool I can look at the line as it is being created,’ he says. The tool also makes it considerably more difficult to actually apply the medium, thus leading to ‘accidents’. He says that the inadvertent movements that arise, and the difficulty in controlling the line helps him to avoid the straight line, and bring new movement.
Out of thin air - sculptures
Paul’s most recent series of sculptures, executed mainly during the first half of 2006, have been a long time coming. Paul says that he has been playing with the ideas behind them since 1998, but has only recently got the vision right from the initial conceptualization and drawings. It is also only recently that Paul has been in a position to be able to execute works of this size and scale.
The series was constructed using a combination of techniques that Paul has experimented with and developed over the years, some of which he learnt when creating the ‘Zanzibar’ series of bronzes. He began by creating the main lines of the shape with wire, a process he calls ‘drawing in air’ since the sculptures are tall and the lines long. The work was technically challenging he says, since the structures were fragile and moved a lot until stabilized somewhat by the reinforcing rods which were attached at the next stage. The additional wire rods welded at strategic points created a frame or skeleton over which first paper and then a fiberglass skin were laid. The finished work was then painted, using primary colours. Finally, some of these models were cast as bronzes. This work entails a challenging combination of drawing, sculpture and painting, and embodies the culmination of various themes and processes Paul has been working on for several years. The play between the elements of line and 3-D has created a new space and form in Paul’s work (pp.118-120).
Paul’s works on canvas have become far more than blueprints for his sculptures. His constant addition of new images and forms as well as his unending experimentation with new media, create ever-changing possibilities for new works. Just when you thought you had seen the last possible character from ‘PlanetPaul’, another one appears and you realize that, fortunately, Paul has much work still to do in exploring the possibilities offered by paint, canvas, metal, unusual materials, strange tools and the ideas in his head. As with Paul’s interest in the unpredictability of the bronze-casting techniques of old, Paul does everything in his power to ‘deny the straight line’. And in all of his work and in all the mediums he uses, he continues to welcome the power of the unexpected.
Notes to pages 23-29
1. Gardner’s Art through the Ages, Sixth Edition, eds. H De la Croix, RG Pansey, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1975) p.430.
Personality of Passion, by Sarah McCarthy, Cape Town, July 2006
Sarah McCarthy is a lifelong student of art, and has written notes and essays for Paul’s previous catalogues. She is a personal friend of the artist.
Amidst the primordial soup of childhood illness, bad punk bands, & a stubborn insistent focus –
-whether it was the latest Apple application, or wind surfing, or prototype IT technology from Korea; Paul has always had an Enthusiasm Extreme for the task at hand, an obsessive keenness that demands – and is granted – total participation -
-or whether it was the exact opposite; a persistent stubborn refusal to participate; a presence that was only there as bystander, observer; perhaps taking notes or collecting driftwood; or admiring a negative shape. Not happy, never satisfied; never quite in the present, and too awkward & shy to communicate much about what may have been going on inside his head -
Out of this yin-yang manifestation of artist aunt and eletronic wizard father ... came an epiphany; a realization. Like a torch beam manually tightened, where the broad bland pool of light sharpens into an intense beam of illumination; shining a light of creativity as Paul discovered and honed his means & medium of self expression.
The remarkable fact is that Paul has found his truth; that he has distilled where he wants to be in the world, and what he wants to do there. This focus has given him the energy & joy to beam that same intensity straight into his burgeoning career as an artist. He had always dabbled in making things. He sold a work in a sidewalk café for R700 and realized that he could make a life out of his greatest pleasure; making stuff. The exposure he got there, to people & faces & characters & the possibilities of the internet & the spicy taste of the rest of the world informed his epiphany. He has always had the nous & world vision to draw up a master plan within which to frame his passions, and this he did with characteristic gusto.
A 10-year retrospective allows reflection on the processes & powers that Paul has exercised to arrive at where he is today – an established artist in the world arena. Lengthy conversations, heated discussions & excited debate over the last ten years have a common thread – his huge lust for life & his great enjoyment at the living of it.
Once he had identified that creating art was what fulfilled him, Paul set all his skills toward becoming the best artist that he could be. Consider the drawing up of long-term goals, the absolute commitment to the pursuit of becoming a better artist, of learning & practicing & experimenting & having fun. Consider hundreds of books bought on Amazon .com – and most remarkably – all carefully studied, alone. Money & time was poured into the bottomless pit of self-belief, demonstrating a faith that was especially impressive when Paul was self taught & his work was initially shunned by Cape Town’s local galleries. Milestones were measured out, & milestones were marched. Belief in his own ability & belief in the power of his work to reach people kept him going. He fed off small recognitions, small improvements in his skills; little victories that goaded him onward as he followed his dream.
He had – and still has – a total commitment to creating artworks, no matter what the cost. He was lucky enough to be well-supported by his wife in this endeavour, during the first few difficult years of his career. He has always been succoured by an infectious, boy-like pleasure at the recognition of his artistic goals by those viewing his work. He is that rare beast – a gifted artist who is able, and more than willing, to talk about a piece of his work and how he created it. This is no longer the shy young man who leant against walls and listened, doodling on a notepad. Now he moves confidently about his space, jumping up to share some new discovery, be it a new work or a new painting technique; a new song or a new recording technology.
And then we must consider the relationship between the artist & his work. Experimentation. Research. Progression. Compulsive repetition. ‘If you like it, work it; if you don’t like it; work it.’ He has always had a perfect understanding of the human face & its attributes, and mastered the subtle emotional effects of relational positioning of the facial features many years ago. He recalls studying faces from his hospital bed as a child. This memory can indeed feasibly underpin his later repetitive examination of the human face & all its expressions – picture a child lying supine with the faces of doctors & nurses floating balloon-like above him; unanchored & against a sterile white background devoid of other stimuli.
Consider Paul’s instinctive understanding for & embracing of great size, in proportion to his own – he was unafraid to accept a commission for a 1.4 x 1.2 m painting for Vodacom, despite the fact that he had been working full time as an artist for only a couple of years. Nor was he nervous to take up the ‘Purple Hominid’ challenge, a mural in the Cradle of Humankind at 10 x 4 m. Remember ‘First Step’? - the big blue guy – built painstakingly outside, because Paul couldn’t fit it inside the studio-cum-garret/garage from which he was working in those days … It stood outside in the rain. During that period he had to work on some paintings sideways, the tall frame cantilevered at an angle and the strong neck horizontal to get a better picture. Sometimes he had to walk outside to view bits of the work from a distance through the single door of the garage …. Consider the physical size of the man; the size of the work; the size of the body of work. He can’t stop himself. The size of progress; the massive weighty steps of improvement.
Paul’s enthusiasm for multi-media, for technology, techniques, tips, testing, trips, & tastes is enormous – he jumps at any opportunity to attain the ability to make manifest the images he has seen in his dreams; images created from snapshots of lines perceived in an instant as he turns away; stored & filed and then reviewed in the mind’s eye; later; in peace. Paul worked in digital video in 1999, in furniture design in 2005 & 2007. He has plans to build a jungle gym & other playground toys in 2007. He explored digital photography years ago; even now he doodles on a pc design tablet for commissions & dreams. In recent months he has created podcast links from his website, and the depth of the audio-visual vocabulary of the ten year retrospective exhibition itself bears testimony to his wide-ranging love for the latest New New Thing.
This same passion has gone into his support for the Children’s Red Cross Hospital where he has acted as one of the ‘Children’s Champions’. In a strange echo of the art classes he attended as a suffering child during his teenage battle against juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Paul has held art classes for the children of the Red Cross every few months for the last three years. He claims these lessons have taught him more than they taught the children, being some of his earliest experiences in collaborative work. He experimented with multi-focused points of view within a single work, and tried representing the human form inverted; flat; and angled – all results of teaching & viewing art from ‘the other side of the page’. It is in his nature to explore these exposures, and to exploit them to their fullest opportunity.
The effort Paul puts into naming his works is proof of another interest – in the spoken (or sung) word. Despite the fact that English is his second language, the titles of some works, like ‘Lean’, & ‘Still Standing’ (for the bandaged ‘survivor’ sculpture), ‘Bad Hair Day’, & ‘Two my Friends’ display a typical wry sense of humour. Other titles, like the evocative ‘Into Tomorrow’ (p.123), for example, add a further dimension to the already substantial visual lexicon of the piece.
The titles of the ‘Zanzibar’ series, ‘Balancing Act’, ‘Waves of Joy’, ‘Another Age’, ‘Above the Clouds’, ‘Natural Motion’, ‘Glow’, & the gentle ‘Adrift’ conjure a verbal essay on his experiences on the island of Chapwani, where he first saw & was so struck by the flapping forms of the sails of the wooden dhows.
Many of Paul’s titles reflect his love for music. Like all his passions, this interest is well researched and well informed. In a characteristic embrace of all things visual, he played MTV in earlier years in his studio while he worked, and this informed his tastes & titles. ‘Walk Unafraid’, ‘That’s Me in the Corner’, & ‘What’s the Frequency’ are all lines or titles by R.E.M., most of them with a unique history. (Paul was intrigued by the final title, which refers to a famous mugging in New York, about which Michael Stipe commented, ‘It remains the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century. It’s a misunderstanding that was scarily random, media hyped and just plain bizarre.’)
He recalls meeting the band, after a concert in Johannesburg (characteristically, he & his wife attended four of the five shows that R.E.M. presented in South Africa). Paul told Mike Mills that he had used their lyrics to name a number of his works – and Mike told him that the band themselves use ‘Walk Unafraid’ as their motto, keeping a poster with the maxim on their office walls at all times.
And then we must observe the techniques. Paul’s fascination with the random is not new, and he strives to reflect this in his work. He wants another series of collaborative works; this time with the Fates as his co-artistes. While on the one hand he is very autocratic in his work, using strong vibrant colours & often a clear cut line, on the other he is intrigued by the tension formed by a conscious loss of control during the creative process. In the studio he tries many methods to explore this dialogue – he distances himself physically from his work; he uses a longer and longer (and more twisted) stick to create the lines that trademark his work; he paints with his left hand. He uses every possible means to proffer Chance a foothold during the creative process. This runs counter to the discipline demanded by Paul’s broader goal of becoming a self-sustaining artist free to dabble in the medium of his choice.
Pippa Tsilik, in her essay ‘The Power of the Unexpected’, describes the ‘backward causality’ of how Paul’s experiments in new mediums affect & inform later work in his more practiced mediums. The fact that Paul experiments with so many different mediums makes this a crucial process in the progression of his art through the last decade. A noteworthy milestone on this road is his work at the Dieu Donné Papermill in New York in 2005. He revelled in the luxury of creating the very medium he was using to express himself. Pieces worked on after this period show a greater confidence & maturity of line.
Speaking of which, (milestones, that is), Paul says it took him six years to get to New York. He identified this goal back there in the café, after his first sale. Along the way he met Kóan Jeff Baysa, who later curated his exhibition in Soho, and who has written an essay elsewhere in this book. (p.15)
Paul’s progression from callow youth to confident & ebullient artist is reflected in the increasing extravagance of his imagery through the last decade. Consider the progression in his use of colour, and in how much more complex his use of line has become. Consider the increasing sophistication of composition, which has developed from single heads to the torso with open arms. Soon those arms began to hold artifacts, and as Sanford Shaman so eloquently comments, Paul shifted from the ‘portrait’ to the ‘narrative’. In the ‘Cluster Series’, 2004 (p. 105), torsos lie passively on top of an unyielding landscape, rather than interacting with it, reminiscent of bodies on hospital beds. More recent works such as ‘Happy Campers’ (p.103), explore visual conversations between a varying number of human-like beings from PlanetPaul, as Paul grows more confident of his place, both within his personal environment and within the broader scope of his work as an artist.
A recent work such as ‘Dusk till Dawn’ (p.11) is noteworthy in that it requires the viewer to consider concepts such as work, play, & even communication, love & self-fulfilment. The two figures show awareness of one another from inside the piece, & communicate to each other from within their respective diurnal cages. The viewer remains uncertain as to whether they represent one individual’s self-reflection, or two happy ‘brothers’ (from the yellow-leg family), acknowledging one another across the demands of their different daily rituals. Once again, the title adds a further dimension to the work, evoking an awareness of time and of the daily struggle of life; raising the possibility of a ‘before-&-after’ snap.
No wonder he loved working on ‘Purple Hominid’; Paul’s work advances as Cro-Magnon man did through the aeons, with spine unfurling & brow reducing in inevitable steps toward the fully vertical & conscious Homo-Sapiens.
‘Drawn to Abstraction’ at Dieu Donné Papermill, New York City, NY, by Kóan Jeff Baysa, New York City, NY, 2006
Kóan Jeff Baysa is a curator as well as a writer, art collector, physician and Whitney Independant Study Program Curatorial alumnus. He is a contributing writer for New York Arts magazine and the online publication Flavorpill, has written for Art Asia Pacific, and is the Pacific editor for dART INTERNATIONAL (Toronto). He is a member of AICA, the International Association of Art Critics. He has curated shows for a number of international exhibitions and events including the London Biennale and the LA International Biennale. He is on the boards of The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School University and the Art Omi International Artists Colony. He is Head of the New York Curatorial Office. Dr Baysa is based in New York City and Los Angeles.
PlanetPaul’s April 2004 debut in the Manhattan art world was an auspicious and solid first landing. Presenting his paintings and sculptures in the former Jack Tilton Gallery in SoHo, New York, artist Paul du Toit enjoyed enthusiastic support from his collectors in South Africa, the South African Consul in New York, and Cape Classics, the US importer of outstanding wines from South Africa. His guileless and spirited paintings use a visual language that is reminiscent of the renowned CoBRA artists of the late 1940s. During his Manhattan residency at Dieu Donné Papermill in October 2005, du Toit created a remarkable and fresh body of work that propels his art into new, exciting, and previously unexplored territories.
To create these new images, du Toit drew upon the moist surface of unpigmented paper pulp with variously pigmented linen pulps in individual squeeze bottles with tips of varying sizes. When the wet drawing was complete, the layers were then compressed under tremendous pressure to expel the water, and the resultant sheet was placed on drying racks. The unique characteristic of this technique, with its consolidation of pigment, ground, and image, is that it not only allows artists to work on handmade paper, but also in it.
At a later stage, Paul then further worked the image by applying marks and pigments by hand, using pens and oilsticks. His imprimatur is seen in the color schemes and bold strokes, but with unique variations resulting from his quick study and skillful use of this new medium, that in his hands, transcends its materiality. States du Toit, ‘The technique suits my style, and the freedom of creating from start to finish was exhausting and challenging in a good way.’ The medium also reflects the artist’s eco-consciousness, because recycled and organic materials are used, and no trees are sacrificed in the making of the paper pulp.
Smiles abound on visits to PlanetPaul, created by self-taught artist, Paul du Toit who quips, ‘Because I live in my head most of the time, I created this space or planet to which I can return and fill with images.’ Tracking an unconventional orbit that has drawn considerable attention, du Toit was confined to a wheelchair with symptoms of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis for three of his teenage years. With an indomitable spirit that typifies how he deals with life’s challenges, du Toit catapulted into the limelight aided by incisive strategies from computer programming and the brilliant management skills of his spouse Lorette. These strong components are annealed with the soul of a confident and capable artist determined and destined to create joyful art to share with the rest of the planet.
Participating in the notable traveling exhibition ‘70 over 2000 on the Road to Meikle Seggie’ and the Firenze Biennale Dell’Arte Contemporanea 2001, he was short-listed for the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Sculpture 2002, and represented South Africa at the Toronto International Art Fair in 2002. His paintings and sculptures have been placed in major corporate collections and successfully auctioned at Sotheby’s with resultant placement of works in notable private American collections in Denver and New York. A popular South African website listed him as one of the most collectible South African artists along with Willie Bester, Norman Catherine, and William Kentridge.
At the 10-year retrospective exhibition of Paul du Toit’s oeuvre at the University of Johannesburg in September 2006 the artworld will again experience PlanetPaul’s formidable gravitational pull.