Jan Neethling – emerging artist or late bloomer

Jan Neethling's Uncle Six Fingers from his 2008 solo exhibition at the Erdmann Contemporary gallery.

LATE bloomer? Indeed, you might think that that is a fair description of someone who, on the cusp of 70, held his debut solo art exhibition. (To be precise, his 70th birthday took place on 6 November 2008, the day after the opening of the exhibition at Erdmann Contemporary in Cape Town.) The artist in question, Jan Neethling insists, however, that he is “an emerging young artist”.

And why not?

His close friend for more than 50 years, the late Robert Hodgins was already in his 60s when those-allegedly-in-the-know first truly stepped back, tilted their heads and narrowed their eyes at his work. Despite having exhibited since the early 1950s, it was 1981 before heavyweight South African artist, Hodgins – who passed away in 2010, shortly before his 90th birthday – made it into the big league. And so, says Neethling, 70 was a good age to get serious.

But that is not to say that he has been artless for seven decades.

Neethling – who, the oldest of four siblings, was born in London in 1938 when his father was posted there as a South African diplomat – has participated in numerous group and two-man exhibitions since 1970, most notably, eight collaborative showings with his comrade-in-art, Hodgins.

Among the especially memorable of these occasions was their fifth collaboration, the Pretty Boy Floyd exhibition, which took place at the Market Theatre Gallery in 1980. In this case, Neethling and Hodgins’ printmaking experiments involved a series of 60 one-off screen prints using notorious 1930s American bank robber and killer, Charles Arthur Pretty Boy Floyd as the subject matter. The work marks the genesis of what has been described as the artist’s ‘valorisation of villains’.

Neethling and Hodgins’ most recent two-man exhibition, Thirty-Five Years Of Graphics, took place at the Art On Paper Gallery in Melville in 2006. At that point, Neethling added to his Rogue’s Gallery series of prints, which depict an intriguing array of outcasts, oddballs and thugs. They were first introduced at the Neethling-Hodgins double act of photo-polymer gravure prints, Two Weeks In The Country, which took place at the same gallery the previous year. Neethling’s rogues are enigmatic: some you are absolutely sure you know, many are mysterious, others are absolutely fictitious and there several who you think you recognise but are not convinced thereof.

Although, in addition to the exhibitions with his close friend, Neethling has participated in several group showings with other well-known South African artists – including William Kentridge, Deborah Bell, Paul Stopforth, Frank van Schaik and Joachim Schonfeldt – his long and close association with Hodgins shaped the course of the artist’s career.

Just as Marianne Faithfull was firstly Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, and secondly a talented musician in her own right, Neethling largely lived in Hodgins’ shadow for many years. It is near impossible to discuss the younger artist with people in the art scene without them referencing Hodgins. And, although those who knew the artists well, say that the relationship was a reciprocal one – Neethling has a particularly keen eye for technical detail and Hodgins himself said (shortly before Neethling’s exhibition) that his friend provided valuable commentary on his work – Hodgins’ reputation meant that Neethling was inevitably perceived of as deputy-to-the-sheriff in almost every assessment.

Neethling was not quite 20 years old when, as a student at the School of Art at the Pretoria Technical College, he first met Hodgins who lectured there at the time.

“My first impression of Jan was that he was an especially independent young man,” said Hodgins. “My goodness! He was wearing jeans. At the time, those were considered ‘garage pants’. They were most certainly not fit for polite society.”

What followed is a remarkable story of five decades of friendship, camaraderie and selfless support. Their relationship was exceptional not only because it survived the test of time but also because it flourished in an environment where the jealousy demon reigns vile and supreme.

Anyone who has been in the arts for any length of time knows that an eat-your-heart-out calibre of envy, resentment and suspicion run rampant among artists. After all, in most instances, artistic recognition comes after years and years of hard slog. It is difficult, it seems, after that, to be gracious and altruistic towards others who appear to achieve similar levels of success with relative ease – for surely, no one has worked as hard for it and deserves it as much as you? Even the most successful artists are not immune to comparing their talent, work and achievements or lack thereof with the abilities, work and accomplishments of others. They guard their techniques and methods with possessive watchfulness and feel particularly threatened when others succeed by using a similar approach. And the less secure they feel, the more mistrustful and critical they become of others.

Incredibly though, despite working so closely for so long – in the 1970s they shared a studio on a peach farm in the vicinity of Fourways (“we were falling over one another”) but most recently the artists shared a home but had separate studios on their premises in Midrand – the Neethling-Hodgins’ alliance showed no sign of resentment or insecurity. Instead, the artists spoke of each other and their relevant work with something akin to maternal pride.

“He is every much the independent and talented young man that I met 50 years ago,” said Hodgins. “And, although we both use the human form as subject, our work is very different. Jan’s work is much tougher than mine. We never interfere with one another’s work. Occasionally he will see pieces of my work drying in the garden and will offer some advice, but he seldom seeks my help.”

Neethling on the other hand, credited Hodgins for “getting me off my arse” when he suffered “artist’s block” for many years during the 1990s. His friend was, he says, the one who said, “let’s just do it” when the pair first contemplated their two-man shows. And, adds Neethling fondly, Hodgins was also “somewhat dictatorial” when the opportunity arose for Neethling to finally hold an independent show.

“Rob and I were great friends forever,” he says. “He gave me the shoves and motivation I have needed through the years and, when the opportunity for a solo exhibition arose, he was there telling me to go for it.”

But, while Hodgins may have provided his friend with motivation in terms of getting him to show his work, Neethling’s skill, say critics, is remarkable, original and arguably, because he has hovered unobtrusively in his friend’s shadow for so long, undervalued. The fact that several pieces in his forthcoming exhibition have already been sold, indicates that collectors are waking up to this fact.

Senior curator at the Goodman Gallery, Neil Dundas, has known Neethling for decades and opened the artist’s solo exhibition. The gallerist was among many excited by Neethling’s debut show: “It is encouraging to see the evolution of Jan’s work. He has found his own voice…broken away from Robert. And, the fact that he now has the courage to follow his own conscious intellect, is evident in this new body of work.”

Neethling and Hodgins, said Dundas, always shared an enjoyment in “the theatre of life” in their collaborations. At last, the solo exhibition reveals Neethling’s individual role in this.

“His work stands apart from Robert’s because it is tougher, more expressive, with harder graphic edges,” he explained. “The exhibition is a remarkable scrutiny of human faces and forms. You might think that you recognise people from Jan’s Rogue Gallery but they have an even a grimmer sense of power now. Jan’s men are complex, sinister and with disguised social masks, while his admiration for strong, sexy women is also evident.”

Entitled Uncle Six Fingers, the exhibition of 17 acrylic on board and canvas paintings took place at the Erdmann Contemporary gallery in Cape Town from 5 to 30 November 2008. The title is taken from one of the paintings, which features a menacing-looking, old-time gangster in a pinstripe suit. He could be a drug lord, a Mafioso, an ageing yob or a second hand car salesman with a surly countenance and a toff sense of style. As with most of Neethling’s pieces, there is a quiet complexity about the work that makes you want to know more about Uncle Six Fingers. Who is he? Should I recognise him? What’s his poison? Where did he come from and why should I fear him?

“Actually, the title comes from a minor but undoubtedly shadowy character mentioned in a satirical sketch done by American comedians, Michael Nichols and Elaine May, which I recall from the 1950s or 60s,” says Neethling. “Uncle Six Fingers is some truly obscure character mentioned in one of the skits and the title worked for the painting. I don’t paint towards a title – quite the contrary, in fact.”

And why not? That is surely the prerogative of an emerging young artist – and/or a late bloomer.

(First published in the Review section of The Weekender in 2008.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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