Kramer's Worldby Rose Korber
Cape Town artist John Kramer is endlessly fascinated by the small town of the Western Cape - its tasteless, nondescript houses, its banal shop-fronts with their eccentric and naïve signs, the seedy corner cafés and general dealer stores from a pre-supermarket era. As a young man growing up in the Boland town of Worcester in the late 1960s, he began to record these buildings with his camera, fearing they might soon disappear: later, these documentations were to become invaluable source material for his hyperrealistic paintings.
"In my work I want to make a statement about the part of the world in which I live." Kramer has often stated. " I want to achieve a feeling that is essentially South African."
What strikes one immediately about his dead-pan, full-frontal images is the total absence of narrative and of the human figure. No flowers soften the entrances to his houses, nor is there a hint of litter on his meticulously painted pavements. Moreover, the viewer is never allowed as much as a glimpse into the interiors of these edifices, for the curtains are forever closed, the blinds inevitably drawn, and - in some recent works - the windows and doors barred.
Yet Kramer maintains there are constant references to people in his work, since whatever he portrays is "man-made". His paintings are not only aesthetic statements, he says, but also social documents.
"What I'm trying to do," he explains, "is to comment on a particular kind of architecture which expresses something of the people who created it or who live and work in it, but who, themselves, are not conscious of the images which they project.
"The kind of paintings I make," he adds, "are not about architecture as such - structures that have been designed by particular people. Rather, they have to do with buildings that have grown and matured over time, that show the ravages of alteration; with all their little quirks and peculiarities, and the funny bits and pieces that get stuck on".
It was while he was still living in Worcester that John Kramer - like his brother, the songwriter David Kramer - became gradually aware of certain elements that were indigenous to the town and many others in the Western Cape. "I began to look at what was essential to my own part of the world, as opposed to America and Europe," he recalls. "I came to realize that it was a certain type and scale of building and a certain quality of light that played on those buildings that, for me, summed up the moods and atmosphere of the place.
"That is why I experienced such a deep sense of loss when, on my return visits to Worcester, I kept finding that more of the old landmarks had disappeared - Van Vuuren's Milk Bar, for instance, with it fantastic jukebox or the Scala bioscope, where I spent a great deal of my youth."
At first sight, Kramer's paintings resemble those of the American photorealist painters of the 1970s, who also often used photographs as sources for their large, non-committal paintings. They concentrated on mundane, familiar subjects such as cars, diners and shop windows, rendering details with uncanny realism. While Kramer is equally skilled at creating such illusions on canvas, he has a very different approach to his subject matter, and his paintings are never altogether neutral.
For Kramer, taking the photograph is as important as painting the picture. Yet the information it provides is used merely as a basis, and he intensifies the composition by simplifying, clarifying or emphasizing various parts of the photograph. By the time the painting is completed, the original image has undergone several stages of transformation: ultimately, it represents a conceptual rather than a perceptual vision.
"It's a very subtle and mysterious process, this business of making a painting." says Kramer. "I go out there to record whatever catches my eye, but what looks good in reality doesn't necessarily translate into a two-dimensional image."
"My first step is to see and compose through the eye of the camera: that can be a very satisfying process, for the photographic image has it own reality. If no one else recorded that image, it's as if it no longer exists. In a sense, then, it's the photograph that becomes the real subject of the painting and not the actual reality out there."
While Kramer's style of painting has loosened up considerably - his earlier paintings tended to be far more sombre, harder and flatter - he remains a committed realist.
"For me, this is the only approach that can convey the message I want to put across. With realism, you have to be very calculated - you can't just work from the heart or the imagination - because the weight of every element counts. For, ultimately, my aim is to create a painting that is a comment about a certain place that existed at a specific and unique moment in time".
John Kramer holds a diploma in fine art from the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. His work is represented in many private and public collections, including the South African National Gallery, The Durban Art Gallery and the King George VI Gallery in Port Elizabeth. He is also head of the design department at the South African National Museum in Cape Town.
Rose Korber is a freelance arts writer and investment adviser based in Cape Town.