Sharle Matthews Spirit of Place 2019 | | Art in South Africa
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Spirit of Place 2019 | IS Art Gallery Franschhoek

I swayed between two options for the title of this exhibition. The Spirit of Place or Deconstruction: The Essence of place. Both would have worked, but I went with the softer of the two, for although I deconstruct and try to find an essence, I am ultimately working towards finding the soul of a place.

My obsession right now with the spiritual and physical elements that give meaning, value and emotion and mystery to a place have dictated the differing styles. My concern was that the audience might think that this is a group show rather than that of one person. Some works are geometric and angular, others flow and appear lyrical. Some are earthy and monotone, others bright and more dramatic. It is a question of what to be true to, your artistic style , or the message that you need to convey for that particular work? I am still deciding.

"There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality."
- Pablo Picasso

I work in a style that can be broadly called Figurative Abstraction. I never start without a reference to reality. At times paintings gain an energy and dictate a subject different from where it started but that I see as the paintings journey. Some journeys are rougher than others, but once they have reached their destination there is a reference, to me at least to the mother idea, thought or feeling. Deciding what to leave out becomes as important as what to include and scraping paint away to reveal a past history of a work becomes part of the meaning of the work.

Arshile Gorky said: "Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes....Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” 

Working in a more abstract way frees me. Using a visual language of shape, form, colour and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references excites me. It is an ideal way for me to communicate spiritual realities, or to create an essence of thought or form.

Robert Motherwell said “One of the most striking of abstract art’s appearances is her nakedness, an art stripped bare." This is exactly what I am trying to do. To deconstruct is to break down, tear apart, dismantle, analyse, very often reducing to the basics or essentials. I deconstruct, for instance the city and then reconstruct elements I feel most necessary to give a desired feeling or meaning.

I have always been intensely curious as to the feeling one gets from a place. A house is your biggest investment, yet often, in my case anyway the choosing of it is more of an art than a science. Practicality is often ignored and the feel of the space and place over ride bad guttering and flat rooves. Places also shape and define us as individuals, in obvious ways like accent or humour. Coming from the Eastern Cape I get a chill up the spine when I hear our flat tones and dry sense of humour. Communities we grow up in and pass through also define us.

Most important here is what defines us, and what do we define? A point on a map can define us as can a rusted tin on a window ledge. Smells, shapes, sound, tradition, movement, structure or lack of these can all contribute to the soul of a place. Foremost on my mind for the last few years has been the question - Where should I move to? Yes, money is a huge part of this decision making, but being an optimist I felt that the world was mine. I have always loved New York, fascinated by the diversity, quaintness within a huge rambling city, its energy and the feeling that anything is possible. Also the fact that it cannot be defined, not by language, culture, structure or art. It is a constantly rebelling, shifting organism. Yet it is steeped in history. We visited New York two Years back. Back of my mind was the thought.... Maybe I could move here? Returning to South Africa, my deep love and passion for the place stronger than ever I realised I couldn't. If I made it too familiar the mystery and passion would fade. I would need to visit it, not make it mine. I consequently started looking around SA, our beautiful Karoo, coastline or back home to the Eastern Cape and it got me thinking about place and what it means . We can't explain it, we can't define it.

My personal middle class "issues" then became clouded with issues topical in our country right now. With issues of Land redistribution, displacement, The gentrification of Woodstock and the dragging of feet around redistribution of land in District Six, I really started picking place and space apart. It then became entangled with thoughts of Who pays for the sins of the forefathers? Spirit of place then gets entangled with ownership.

I have had along fascination or obsession with harbours. Are they the end or beginning of a place. Do they import friends or foes, is the trade brought in good or bad. Does the water join or divide us? Over the vast areas of water we have moved people and imports of every kind. I acknowledge that my forefathers were occupiers of this land, through force they settled and dictated. Yet, I was born here. So where do I belong really? Do I love this place so urgently because basically it isn't mine. Or is it?

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