In the five years since she’s invested in her artistic career Cape Town artist Elize Vossgatter has had several exhibitions: Sterntaler in 2013 and Once there was, and once there was not in 2014 both at the AVA Gallery, and In the End We’re all to Blame at Commune1 in 2015. Elize is an invited member of Nando’s Artist Society, a platform managed by Yellowwoods Art to increase economic opportunities and allow focus for mid-career artists in South Africa. She recently returned from a prestigious ART OMI residency in upstate New York. Here we speak to Elize on painting backwards and with her eyes closed, CHOICE, thriving on contradictions, paradoxes and things that don’t make sense and work that speaks of our unnatural relationship with the natural environment.
In February your work was exhibited as part of the Cape Town Art Fair at SMITH Studio. Your work always has a textured human story behind it. Can you please voice the story behind this body of work, to add another dimension to the visual story?
This series of work is entitled, ‘The Conservationists Dream’ and consists of 12 paintings. I enjoy working on a body of work simultaneously – all of them growing at the same time. These were hung grid-like in my studio, and clearly they each have their individual preoccupations but are indispensable parts of an overarching narrative.
This work speaks of our relationship with nature or rather, our unnatural relationship with the natural environment.
There is a feeling of imminent doom in these paintings – like when you’re stifling a laugh. Surfaces are tarred or oily, or spewing or stitched; the colours contradict space; the compositions are tacky, the figures are somehow lost to their environments. Trees about to break, flooding, drought, cloning, seeds, Monsanto, agriculture, cheap labour – these are things that feed into my work as subconscious influences. Here they took their clumsy footing along with the awkward colours and playful textures and framed within the arresting artificiality of the neon frames.
You work with a diverse range of mediums, from oils, to glitter, neon, gold dust, pencil crayon, charcoal, post-its, tiles, panels, Belgian linen, meths, thinners and various other solvents and materials. You mentioned to me that no matter how your subjects, style and use of material have changed over the years, you’ve always kept the same process. Please, could you share that foundation of your work with us?
Well, rather than process, I prefer to use the word sensibility. Style changes and process echoes instincts and moods, but somehow a certain sensibility prevails that is constant with all artists. If style evokes the surface, then sensibility is that which sits beneath the surface – like the subtext of a mark.
I enjoy seeing that ‘thing’ that always remains, it always surprises me – just as I think my work has totally changed, then I see the motifs that remain the same.
The sensibility that prevails is my interrogation of materials. Very often there’s a certain level of erosion in my use of material that is consistent. I tend to build up and then destroy. I create the ‘beauty’ the ‘technically astute’ and then I corrode it using solvents that contradict the material or the logic of the aesthetic.
You’ve said before, “I enjoy the poetry of language and the visual shape that metaphors take on. For this reason, I like using stories or proverbs as a departure point in my work. I am fascinated by folklore. By stories passed down by generations.” The names of your artworks read like titles on the spines of books in a fabulous library. In the context of both your past, current and future work, what goes through your mind when you look at this list altogether?
I love the conclusive nature of the titles, meaning that when they pop into my head I know the painting is complete. I don’t start off with a title or sometimes not even with the intention of the title – the artwork somehow just manifests and tells the story.
My interest in folklore pervaded my first two exhibitions and has since changed its nature, but my interest in the story or the storyteller persists and the title should allude to a narrative without defining it. It’s just the beginning of the story, and the viewer tells the rest.
If you were introducing your work to somebody who didn’t know you or hadn’t seen your work before, what would you like them to know? What would you like to tell them?
I always struggle with that social moment when people find out that I’m a painter – the next general question is, ‘So what do you paint.’ I tend to respond flatly that I paint oily, figurative, expressive paintings of people in some relationship with their environment or with each other. It’s a generic response; I don’t know why I do it.
What I should say is this; ‘I paint backwards and with my eyes closed. I don’t know what I want to say and who I’m saying it for. I yield paint, I clash colours together and make many counter-intuitive decisions to echo the paradoxes of our existence.’
If you could count five pivotal moments that have made all the difference in your career as an artist, what would they be?
CHOICE: five years ago I was a high-school art teacher with two children and I hadn’t painted in years. I loved teaching, but was restless and felt displaced. I got divorced, quit my job, moved to a new house and started painting. I haven’t looked back.
Julia Teale: Julia taught me briefly when I was studying at UCT in 2000. I found her again when I started to feel the itch to paint again. She had since started a painting school called Spencer Street Studios. I felt so immensely dull in my expression, but somehow she saw something in my mark and encouraged me. I don’t think that I would have been able to find the strength to make the choices that I made without her mentorship.
Bijou/Eastside Studio: I fell into a most extraordinary community of artists. We started in the Bijou in Obs and moved to Woodstock two years ago. It’s a community of 12 artists. Despite our intrinsic independence there is a prevailing atmosphere of support and uncompetitiveness, which creates stability in a career that can sometimes feel lonely. Thank you to Barbara Wildenboer, Liza Grobler, Norman O’Flynn, Christopher Slack, Kilmany-Jo Liversage, Swain Hoogervorst, Tess Berlein and Frans Smit for being part of this.
Jeanetta Blignaut: Jeanetta started Qubeka Beads, Creative Block and Spier Arts Academy – this has now become Yellowwoods Arts. Without her vision and support for contemporary artists in South Africa there is no way that I would have been able to sustain my career as a full-time artist. She made many things possible with her strong commitment to good art.
People fascinate me: I like to just look and hear – and when suitably bewildered, I start to paint….I thrive on contradictions, paradoxes and things that don’t make sense.
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Elize is part of Surface/Subtext, an all-female group show curated by Emma van der Merwe at Everard Read Gallery, Cape Town from 18 August to 11 September.