JACO ROUX, LANDSCAPE PAINTER – ASHRAF JAMAL
Jaco Roux’s work cannot simply be inserted within an existing tradition for to do so would, wittingly or unwittingly, refuse to recognise that while Roux has absorbed that tradition he has done so the better to bind it to its inevitable transformation. How so? Roux’s paintings, while they can be relished individually, are first and foremost studies which form a suite. Each painting echoes the next. As translations of space into a practiced place, Roux’s landscapes become both objective representations and insertions of a subjective relationship within that represented world. We see the Limpopo landscape receding into the distance and watch as it breaks in the middle ground, while, in the foreground, the perspective flattens, drops, is suddenly foreshortened by blocks and planes of bold colour. Here we are witnessing the superimposition of two very distinct painterly traditions, naturalism and abstraction. It is of course the tension between these markedly different traditions which gives Roux’s paintings their signature. It is all the more intriguing that Roux’s overlay of naturalism and abstraction continues, uncannily, to echo the picturesque tradition which, as J.M. Coetzee notes, generates ‘a foreground characterised by “force and richness”, by “roughness of texture”, in contrast to the tenderness of the middle and foreground’. However for Roux the force, richness, roughness, stems from the deformation and abstraction of the world. Roux, quite literally, imposes the techniques and style of ‘hard’ abstraction and fauvism onto the landscape. That he does so without cancelling the aesthetic regime of picturesque representation is truly remarkable. His coulisse is the broad, blunt incursion of Modernism. In effect, what Roux has achieved is a merger of two seemingly mutually exclusive traditions, or, it can be said that he has thrust together the discordant tectonic plates of naturalism and abstraction. What makes the achievement uncanny is the effortlessness of the merger, and that in the doing he has in no way contaminated the core principles of the picturesque. Rather, his is a strange new and utterly plausible cohabitation and embrace of two strikingly dissimilar yet serendipitously paired traditions.
In Jaco Roux’s landscape painting the neoclassical and picturesque blithely segues into the cool rupture that is modernism. It is a masterful endeavour which also proves to be the artist’s tell, abstraction and naturalism, the alien and the natural, for Roux we exist in a contrapuntal, dissonant, yet inclusive world. It is this revisionist insight which could, psychically, imaginatively, humanly, allow for differences to coexist. Jaco Roux allows these different cultural and aesthetic forms to coexist in a non-provocative, non-violent way. Because what is markedly striking about Roux’s paintings is that they are soothing, consoling, easing. The paintings emerge without parenthesis, qualification, doubt, or contention: they are not difficult or intractable works. Their job – if a painting can be said to have a function – is precisely to convey ‘that spiritual and physical oneness we all share with this common homeland’. It is as if, with Jaco Roux, we have moved full circle: we have embraced the discordances and ruptures of our colonial history – a history which, through painting, has forced the fantasy of lack-and-plenty, the better to impose an alien value system – and a new and evolving future-history – in which all ruptures and discordances are, aesthetically at least, resolved. If this is indeed the case, if my take on Roux’s paintings as blessings in an on-going aggravated historical moment has any purchase, then we are dealing with an artist-as-idealist. Historically the picturesque as an aesthetic was also about the imposition of a value system. In Roux’s case he is not imposing a European tradition from some extraneous vantage point but recognising its place within South Africa at a moment in time when the divisions between north and south, European and African cannot be so easily parsed. Ours is a hyper-connected world; a world shaped by global familiarity in the very instant in which each place on this earth declaims its singularity. Therein lies the paradox of the contemporary moment.
In splicing naturalism and abstraction, Jaco Roux has sought to reconcile the particular and the vast, the constraints of the familiar and the horizon of the unfamiliar. It was J.H. Pierneef who in the 1930s could be regarded as the early pioneer of the conflation of naturalism and abstraction, though as Wilhelm van Rensburg has justly pointed out, there are many other aesthetic strings to Pierneef’s bow – Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Pointillism, quasi-Cubism. In the case of Jaco Roux, however, we find no attempt to distil or fuse the divergent influence – namely, a picturesque naturalism and abstraction. Rather, he confronts these starkly divergent movements head-on. The effect is surreal, if one understands the term as meaning the superimposition of one reality upon another. Unlike surrealism, however, the effect is never discordant or violent, but, bizarrely, and fortuitously, soothing. There is even a Hockney-esque quality to the paintings because of the relish they display for vivid colour and geometry. In the South African context abstraction had its boom in the 1960s and 1970s. An exemplary figure in this regard is Trevor Coleman, a master of ‘hard painting’. Abstraction, of course, has many facets and modes of expression, and here one could also include the works of Walter Battiss and Cecil Skotnes. My point, however, is how to best position, or account for the positions which Jaco Roux has adopted? The artist’s decision to reject a singular, pure, approach is what I find particularly telling. And yet, neither is he contaminating one form with another. Instead what we find is a cool re-alignment of genres and styles which allows for history to play its part while, in the same instant, allowing for a primordial celebration of landscape and colour. The root of this seductive and heartening approach lies, I believe, in the spirit of the man himself. Unmoved by pure abstraction as he is unmoved by the fetish of the picturesque, Roux gives us parallel and parallax viewpoints. All importantly, his paintings are never complacent or self-aware commentaries upon landscaping and abstraction, simply quiet and soothing insertions in an embattled history. So being, Roux has thereby by-passed the traps which history has set for us. In the light of Jaco Roux’s painting, the South African landscape need no longer be what Miriam Aronowicz has termed a ‘transitional object … a landscape of transactions between metropolitan conventions and colonial conditions’. Today, city and country interpenetrate, as do colonial history and the contemporary morph that is the metropolitan condition. In Jaco Roux’s art we see this interface quite literally in the overlay of naturalism and abstraction. It is however all the more striking that these distinctive elements coexist rather than blur, for what interests Roux is a concatenated, rough, rich, and raw suturing of non-abrasive differences of form, colour, and history. This rub signals the spirit and mood of the artist – there is something clinical about Roux’s idealism. Roux, I’d venture, is no Romantic; his paintings reveal no sturm und drang, no angst or fraught will to engineer the new. Rather, without fanfare, we encounter the smooth realignment of an age-old rupture of forms and cultures.
BODY OF AFRICA
‘I had a farm in Africa … [where] the views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequally nobility … you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be’. So begins Isak Dinesen’s 1937 novel Out of Africa. If I conclude this essay with Dinesen’s opening words it is because they tell us something true about the ease that can come after so much human restlessness…. Here I am, where I ought to be. Jaco Roux is also a farmer of subtropical plants in Limpopo. His world, therefore, is also largely shaped by that very emotion which Dinesen conjures. His paintings, fixed upon a distant horizon, a great sky, and a rich scrubland between, is one which, I imagine, he has moved through in his dreams, stumbled upon daily in his walks, caught askance, lingered upon, supped and drunk through the infinite portals of his lone being. Always, however, it is the greater view beyond that has compelled him, a view, caught at a distance, which, curiously, he has chosen to subtract in the paintings’ foreground. In Roux’s paintings we find no ‘dark coulisse on one side shadowing the foreground’, no desire to position the viewer at the fore or middle ground, the better to ensure that perfect fusion of the viewer and the world perceived. And so, in splitting the view, resisting the moment so typical in the picturesque neoclassical tradition of allowing the one who sees a fullness of vision that could make them whole, Roux has chosen to withdraw both himself and the viewer from a full immersion in the world he sees. If this is so, I’d venture to say that it is because, being no Romantic, possessing no sense of wholly belonging to or possessing the world he sees, Roux seeks to remind us of our provisional place on this earth. He is no master of all he surveys, no latter-day colonial adventurer in search of some misbegotten mirror of himself, but a creature at one with his partial sense of self – caught at some remove. It is therefore the blocks and planes of abstraction, and, on occasion, the fauvistic rubs of bold colour at the base of the paintings, which broach the greater question: what is the stuff of art? What is the stuff of being? For Roux I’d say colour itself, colour thrust upon an arid land, colour imported, pasted, blocked, thin and thick, lined, quivered, rich. Unlike William Burchell, Jaco Roux does not search ‘in vain for those mellow beautiful tints with which the sun dyes the forests of England’. What cannot be reproduced he must create. But not seeking to fancifully doctor his universe – the Limpopo landscape before and within him – he chooses rather to supplement that world with a parallel world. Now to supplement is to add to, but also to substitute. Abstraction, therefore, is also a subtraction. So that what we get is not a singular vision but a twinned and bi-focal one.
This, perhaps, is Jaco Roux’s answer to William Burchell’s disappointment; this his reply to an age-old frustration of Europeans in Africa, a continent which has all too often proved the hapless victim of disappointed souls. The lesson Roux provides – if art should have a lesson – is that it is better to embrace and then transform the difficulty experienced. As W.J.T. Mitchell reminds us, ‘landscape is a dynamic medium, in which we “live and move and have our being”, but also a medium that is itself in motion from one place or time to another’. Knowing this, one becomes wary of framing a painter too prescriptively. While each and every artist experiences what Harold Bloom terms the ‘anxiety of influence’, be it aesthetic, political, or cultural, one must, in a more inclusive world, allow for both a profound break from that anxious influence and a more enabling mash-up and re-mix thereof. I believe that to best understand and embrace Roux’s landscapes one must acknowledge not only the influences and the breakages, but also the artist’s ability to trump a conflicted tradition. If landscape painting allows for the ‘formation of identity’ in Roux’s case, identity is conceived in a minor key. For the artist has clearly resisted, or simply forgotten, the grandeur commonly associated with the painterly tradition. The Ideal, the Heroic, the Pastoral, the Beautiful, the Sublime. None of these qualities are the artist’s driving force. And yet the works are compelling. Perhaps it is because he has conflated the grand and the ordinary, the ‘ideal estate’ and the ‘real estate’. Or perhaps it is because, without illusion, and with great affirmative ease, Jaco Roux has, finally, embraced ‘the body of Africa’ – a creature as real as it is abstract.