“Given Jaco van Schalkwyk’s preference for allegory as a vehicle of expression, first in commenting on the values of a community of people, as in Just a Matter of Time (2012, his first solo show); or about an apocalyptic world vision as in “I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things…” (2013, his second show at the Barnard Gallery); one feels compelled to apply the same hermeneutics to his latest exhibition, Eden.
There is an enduring trace of the allegorical narrative in his latest body of work, namely that of Eden as the eternal paradise: both lost and found. In this current exhibition there remains the contextual reference to the apocalyptic vision and imagery emblematic of different emotional states of mind, yet here devoid of human figures.
The absence of human figures signals the first major difference between the work in this exhibition and his previous exhibitions’ work. Whereas the human figure introduced some form of reference to cultural action and or activity, the new works refer to the results of human action and intervention on the landscape. He blurs the line between culture and nature through his choice to paint in monochrome. With the slightest hint of military or even gangrene green, he comments on the abuse and neglect of human stewardship of the natural world.
Other than in his previous work, here he postulates an allegory of paradisiacal transitoriness. In the new work he enters the domain of the transitional: from the abandonment of the yard of demolished buildings in his hometown, Benoni (BNI 2014/07/01, 14:49), to the swamps of the Everglades in Florida, USA (FL 2015/02/22, 17:43), to the windswept Sylt Island in the North Sea off the coast of Germany (RTM 2014/04/21, 18:39). Impressions and imagery from these locations, places where he resided the last two years, form the basis of this exhibition called Eden.
The Everglades he visited earlier this year, drawn particularly by the growth of cypress swamps and mangroves in this complex system of interdependent ecosystems. Systems that shift, grow and shrink, die, or reappear within years or decades.
After winning the Merit Award sponsored by the Sylt Foundation in the 2013 Absa L’Atelier, Van Schalkwyk had the opportunity to take up an artist’s residency on the Sylt Island. “A time of introspection”, as he refers to the just more than two months he spent on the island in late winter last year.
It is the transient state of erosion and reclamation of these familiar and foreign places which forms the common denominator in his use of these three location as reference. A view of “paradise” worn away, weathered and eroded yet always in the process of re-establishing its original existence.
The Afrikaans equivalent would be “om te verweer”. But “om te verweer” has a homonym meaning to defend, to fight back, to resist. The diametrically opposing meaning of the two Afrikaans words could be seen as a possible hermeneutic key to interpretations of Eden: the biblical garden of God with the tree of life; the cursed wilderness sprouting thorns and thistles; and perhaps Eden as a form of eternal hope. Seen against Van Schalkwyk’s religious background the defending, fighting back and resisting would be in order to attain something, to enter an eschatological Eden.
His own life was undergoing similar structural changes. The Sylt residency came after the euphoria of a second exhibition at the Barnard Gallery, but also initiated a change in lifestyle. Whereas he had had a ten year association and excellent professional working relationship with artist Marie Vermeulen-Breedt, in which she was one of the initiators and contributors in his development as an artist, time had come to carve out his own niche in the art world.
On the one hand a career taking a new course was beckoning and yet, on the other, Van Schalkwyk experienced the loss of the familiar. An ambiguity that translates well into his reading of landscape as both “paradise” and “paradise lost”, as a continuously shifting phenomenon.
A residency on an island (sans tropical palms and sultry breezes) was more than what he bargained for.
The island of Sylt, constantly under threat by forces of nature, is constantly shifting its shape. Measures of protection against the continuous erosion date back to the early 19th century when groynes of timber poles were constructed at right angles into the sea from the coast line to stop the encroachment of the sea. The only effective means of stopping the erosion caused by crossways currents seem to be flushing sand onto the shore. Dredging vessels are used to pump a mixture of sand and water ashore where it is spread by bulldozers.
Van Schalkwyk’s Eden becomes indicative of human endeavours to keep the notion of paradise afloat, of plantations of alien trees to stabilise shifting sand and of establishing a sense of self in terms of the place one inhabits.
He appropriates “foreign” landscapes and his experience through the lens of his camera as a way of claiming the landscape and feeding the creative subconscious in a prelude to painting.
More than mere representations of nature (as in his imitations of wild life and farm animals prior to 2011) his time-consuming process of eroding the photographic quality of immediate recognition introduces the lens of self-reflection to the instantaneous experience captured in the photograph. He aids the concept of erosion of the photographic image by crumpling the photograph and then paints it as an object (HRM 2014/06/12, 15:45) and not as a landscape. He would bring an open flame close to the back of the photograph, capture the lingering smoke with his camera and then paint that as an object (RTM 2014/04/08, 13:45).
By negotiating the tension and fine balance between “erode” and “resist”, the two poles in this body of work, the artist ensures that his Eden does not collapse completely into a dystopian reality. Instead of focusing on yet another explanation of what we have lost, he would rather opt for an exploration of what we may yet find, as Van Schalkwyk paraphrases Simon Schama in his Landscape and Memory.
Transient as these depictions of paradise might be, with all the references to transitoriness of the reality of the now, brought on by natural developments such as global warming and the negligence and unbridled selfishness the human race, there might be a possibility of regeneration. Van Schalkwyk argues: “The Ice Age seemed to herald the end of all life on this planet … and yet after that there was a new beginning. Perhaps we are now witnessing a demise, but something new might come in its place.”
In this context the austere installation work (HRM 2011/04/04, 2014/04/17), in collaboration with artist Stephan Erasmus, could be read as an altarpiece, especially within the Christian tradition as an allegory for salvation.
The structure suspended from the ceiling above a sea of sand enveloped in an alcove depicting a minimalist landscape, is possibly the closest one could come to the picture of an idyllic paradise with pristine beaches … or an Eden with a tree of life.”