Born into a creative and cultured family, a career as a fine artist was a natural choice for Jonathan van der Walt, who is currently studying towards his Master’s Degree at NMMU in Port Elizabeth.
His discipline of focus, sculpture, enables him to combine techniques, characteristics and mediums common to both high and low art. Using the art world in which he produces as his primary subject, Jonathan examines the blurred relationship between kitsch and fine art.
This year two of his sculptures, The Warhol Affects and Marvel at the Avante-garde, were accepted into the national top 100 for the ABSA L’Atelier competition and will be on show from July to August this year at the ABSA Gallery in Johannesburg. Later on this year, he will also be participating in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum Biennial.
For our annual Young South Africa series, we spoke to Jonathan to learn more:
Tell us a bit more about yourself and your background.
I am a fine artist based in Port Elizabeth, focusing my practice in the discipline of sculpture yet proficient in drawing and painting as well. I was born in Kimberley and conquered the trek from the Big Hole to Bayworld with my family when I was 10. I am a ginger to some and a redhead to hairdressers. I had an exciting and somewhat successful secondary education, matriculating from Victoria Park High School in 2009, whilst getting my music fix playing bass guitar in their Jazz Band. I graduated with a Fine Art (sculpture) degree cum laude last year at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and I am currently studying towards a Master’s degree.
When did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career as an artist, and how have you gone about doing so?
Fortunately for me, I was born into a creative and cultured family. With a passionate English and Drama teacher for a mother and a skilled leatherworker/Geography teacher for a father it was just a matter of time before their three sons would follow suit. Me being the youngest, I was highly influenced by the art that my older brother was making for school. So from an early age I was drawing wherever and on whatever I could. The support I had from my whole family strongly aided me in my development and interest in art. Considering art as a viable career option, however, only surfaced when having to decide on what to study after high school. I had been getting very good marks for Visual Arts at school, but was doing well in a few other subjects as well. This created an obstacle as it is normally a financial burden studying at a university and the pursuit of being artist wouldn’t guarantee me a stable income after my studies. It was a risk, but a risk that has paid off exponentially.
I have always said to myself that if I’m going to be an artist, I need to believe in my abilities, network and execute; the moment I start to doubt whether I am going to get anywhere with it is when I won’t get anywhere. The last two years have given me great confidence in my abilities and assurance in my process of production. I now truly feel as if I am knocking at the door of the South African art scene. And if no one comes to the door, I’ll ring the bell or break a window. 🙂
Why are you particularly interested in sculpture?
My interest in sculpture developed within the first two years of my university course, whereby at the end of the second year I had to decide on what discipline I was to major in. Prior to university I was mainly concerned with painting and drawing as these were the more manageable disciplines at a high school level. But my eyes lit up when I began to scratch the surface of the world of sculpture. I decided to pursue a degree in sculpture as I saw a greater potential for technical skills development with an NMMU studio that caters for woodworking, metalworking, plaster and rubber moulding, resin and plaster casting as well as traditional bronze casting. The NMMU boasts a formidable sculpture department under the more than capable mentorship of David Jones and Andrieta Wentzel.
In a competitive art world, where artists are trying so hard to ‘push’ the non-existent boundaries, the traditional power and presence of sculpture has great value, and is a vital tool in the contemporary artist’s arsenal. Sculpture forces both the artist and the viewer to engage with the subject three-dimensionally, to understand its volume and the specific space it occupies within its environment.
How would you describe your style or aesthetic, and how has this developed since your first started out?
My style does tend to vary according to the concept of the work. I feel that the concept forms a strong structural basis of one’s artwork but should not override it, and one’s artistic skill should always be practically evident. I always strive to find the perfect balance between conceptual dynamism and practical prowess, as this to me is what separates a good piece from a great work of art. As for the work I’ve produced recently, my style makes use of parody and imitation to form a contemporary comment on kitsch. My sculptures allude to or directly imitate existing artworks by successful artists as well as the artists themselves within the fields of my research (such as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo) to open a conversation with them and their work and its relevance today. I work at a small-scale, seldom exceeding 30cm in height; my figures are naturalistically rendered in a variety of styles from sentimental ‘kitsch’ figurines to action figures and collectible statues as popular culture symbols.
I like to see myself as an adaptable artist that is able to make an idea in my head possible in whatever medium or approach it needs to be to create a sound work of art. This has allowed me to experiment with new and interesting techniques and mediums that I don’t normally work with as well as opening the door for me to learn new processes that will assist me in my future artistic practice, expanding my creative range.
Are there specific themes which your work is primarily concerned with? Or perhaps a few which seem to reoccur?
I have never regarded myself as an artist that expresses pain, anger or love through my art; I normally save all that for people. That being said, I work rather objectively using the art world, within which I produce, as my subject. The work I have produced within the last two years has followed a primary theme; it examines the current blurred relationship between kitsch (low-art) and fine art (high-art). I perceive this as emerging through a number of factors, namely the rise and decline of the avant-garde, kitsch as an influence and/or subject in art, and the embrace of popular culture and its commodification by postmodern artists. These factors have merged the fields of kitsch and fine art to a point where one struggles to differentiate between them. The shifting relationships between kitsch and taste are highly subjective, and often inconclusive. I thus comment on their dialogues by using techniques, characteristics and mediums common to both high and low art. Ultimately, the viewer completes the work by deciding for themselves whether it is high or low art, or whether the concept of kitsch has in-fact become irrelevant.
I have always found this ‘war’ between what is fine art and what is kitsch highly interesting, being an artist the field of taste has great relevance because you are either making art for people to like, or for people to not like or more often than not you’ve just got no idea how it will be received. This becomes very interesting when financial pressures take their toll and business and art meet, throwing discussions of kitsch and fine art out the window. And you begin to ask yourself; as an artist, do I produce for myself? Do I produce for others? Or do I just produce?
Tell us more about your pieces Next Level $hit and The Warhol Affects.
Next Level $hit is a parody of pop artist Jeff Koons’ famous life-size porcelain sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) which sold for $5.6 million. In my sculpture I have replaced Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles, with Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er of the South Africa rap-rave group, Die Antwoord. This change in subject matter firstly grounds it in the here and now; it emphasises the post-modern embrace of kitsch brought about by artists such as Koons and the rise of globalisation and the internet community. This is evident as Die Antwoord is a representation of the lower class white Afrikaner culture that gained overnight international recognition through the internet. Secondly, it plays on the original concept of kitsch as a cheap imitation of high art for the lower class to afford. By my imitating a fine art piece that was in turn imitating kitsch, it emphasises the blurred cycle that developed as pop artists turned to ‘low’ culture as influence, resulting in a confused and indefinable post-modernism. The title Next Level $hit alludes to this cycle as well. It is a phrase that Die Antwoord use a lot to describe themselves, their music and their style, as if they are on another level to everyone else; however set in this context it suggests a regurgitation of what was ‘shit’ before, a new form of kitsch, kitsch that has upgraded to a higher level. Roger Scruton wrote about this regurgitation when he referred to post-modernism as pre-emptive kitsch, as it is far better to deliberately produce kitsch, because then it is not kitsch at all but a sophisticated parody.
The Warhol Affects is a series of multiple sculptures of Andy Warhol. Much like in his own work, where he repeats an image multiple times in different colours to convey messages of contemporary life, and asks questions about freedom, materialism, narcissism, consumption, individualism and equality in a society shaped by forces beyond our control, I use the same technique, however, to convey a different message. By repeating his image and not his artwork I draw attention to the decomposition of the role and perception of the artist in post-modernism and not just questioning the role of the art produced. Andy Warhol was quoted saying that “the more you look at the exact same thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel”. I used the image of Andy Warhol as he has become the figurehead of the rise of popular culture, and while commenting on celebrity worship, he has over the past decades become a worshipped celebrity. One of Warhol’s most famous prints was repeating an image of Campbell’s Soup Cans, which began the merger between low and high art. Warhol branded himself as a product and I therefore made a more appropriate soup can label to now read “Warhol’s Condensed Kitsch Soup”, as the product of his actions is now a post-modern soup, a blend of class and culture with a strong embrace of kitsch. The title plays on the phrase “The Warhol Effect”, used ironically to both suggest the impact he’s had in the development into post-modernism as well as a filter effect that the everyday computer user can use to make any image they want look like an Andy Warhol print, by repeating the same image several times in different colours, similar to Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe prints.
What mediums do you work in/with, and why?
My finished sculptures are normally bronze casts or resin casts. I have developed a keen interest in the process of wax modelling, rubber moulding and casting. The process involves working with a microcrystalline wax mixture that I model with a variety of tools to achieve the desired finish. This becomes the first ‘positive’ (ultimately it looks exactly how the finished piece will look just in wax and not resin or bronze). I then proceed to mould the wax with silicone rubber which becomes the ‘negative’ in which I will cast resin or begin the convoluted process that is bronze casting.
Medium plays an important role in sculpture, the conceptual weight that it carries can take your work to new levels as it has its own history, and its own set of restrictions. For example, a few of my sculptures are bronze casts that have been painted, and are presented in amongst painted resin casts, denying the bronze medium its status. Now painting a bronze is normally a big NO-NO because it is a traditional medium and highly valuable, and is normally polished to enhance its characteristics and not covered up. This act finds grounding in my work, as I comment on the relationship between the cheap, low art kitsch and high art and their contemporary irrelevance. In other words, in contemporary art, because the traditional boundaries between high and low art have been demolished by the actions of artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, we are unable to tell the difference and thus unable to truly value it. This can all be read from the choice of medium, exemplifying its significance in sculpture.
To what extent does your immediate environment influence your work?
I don’t feel that my work is directly influenced by my surroundings. I don’t comment or express thematically on what affects me personally and therefore my work is devoid of influences from my environment. One could argue, however, that in this globalized age of internet culture my work is highly influenced by a virtual environment. And commenting on global art issues from a small city in South Africa, the internet is a vital source of inspiration and source material with which to play. I enjoy being able to communicate, argue and criticise other artists and art developments through my art, as I feel art is a form of communication, and artists of the past have already initiated various conversations and instead of accepting what they said or did and moving on to the next one, I want to answer them and propose my own questions for others to join in.
What else are you influenced and inspired by?
I enjoy the type of art that questions itself, art that doesn’t just represent reality but art that attempts to reinterpret its position in it. Artists like Rene Magritte and Marcel Duchamp are constant sources of inspiration as they successfully moved beyond the traditional restrictions of the canvas and the object. I find highly cynical viewpoints on art and where it’s heading very interesting and thought-provoking, and it ironically gets my creative juices flowing to want to make art. I have a love/hate relationship with art as a lot of artists do; I understand the value of researching artists and their work as a form of inspiration, but at the same time I feel it can be a restriction on your own personal artistic development. Relying too much on how someone else did something can put blinders around your mind’s eye; and that’s why I use what they did not as inspiration but as subject matter to reinforce my own work.
What does it mean to you to be a young creative in South Africa?
It is an exciting time to be an artist in South Africa. The country is alive with activity, and the rest of the world is realising it. Port Elizabeth alone has seen a great increase it art activity of late and more importantly, activity that is delivering contemporary art at a national and international standard. It’s motivating to see the amount of opportunities that are currently becoming available to up-and-coming young South African artists. Without all the galleries, projects and competitions around the country supporting young artists it would be a frustrating and almost impossible task for their art to be seen, let alone get anywhere. I love this country and wouldn’t want to have been born anywhere else, and I can only hope that I can proudly represent it and its people on an international stage in the future.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently studying for my master’s degree, but have my fingers in a lot of pies. I have two separate collaborative public sculpture commissions and another private commission currently on the go, working alongside some established artists gaining valuable experience and developing some strong networks. I am also working on two artworks that I will be entering into both the Sasol New Signatures 2014 competition and an art project titled Wish You Were Here. I entered two sculptures (The Warhol Affects and Super Salvador action figure) into the ABSA L’Atelier 2014 national art competition and both were accepted into the national top 100 which will be on exhibition at the ABSA Gallery in Johannesburg from 16th July – 21st August. I have also been invited to participate in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum Biennial 2014, Eastern Cape’s most prestigious art exhibition, which takes place later this year.
What are your plans going forward?
I intend finishing my master’s degree by the end of next year, which I am excited to exhibit if all goes as planned. Until then I will carry on putting my fingers into as many delicious pies as I can manage. I am hopeful that if I continue to work as I have been something exciting and worthwhile will arise, hopefully with the opportunity to travel. I would like to perfect my craft as much as possible and continue to shove my work into people’s faces in as many outlets as digitally and physically possible. It’s exciting not knowing where I might end up, it keeps me on my toes and I relish facing what the world has in store for me.