In the same way that humans have looked for patterns to aid their survival, so art critics have grouped artists under umbrella names. It’s as if to hedge some kind of order against impending chaos, to make the uncontainable containable. If one were to make like a contemporary Ariadne and search the labyrinth of John-Michael Metelerkamp’s paintings for the single thread of a common denominator, it would surely be the painter’s eclectic nature – with influences from the masters to modern-day posts on Instagram, and street photographer, Joel Meyerowitz. There are other characteristics too. The constant shifting and exploration of the new and, of course, his prolific outpouring, often completing a painting in a day. Metelerkamp’s subject matter is mostly the female nude. He ascribes this to finding women more interesting to paint. ‘Females have a lot going on under the surface. Their story is more dramatic than men’s, I feel,’ he says. And Metelerkamp believes that ‘higher levels of emotion make for great storytelling material.’ A self-taught painter, Metelerkamp is not bound by the restrictions and notions held by the art world. Instead, he is free to create within the vastness of the beginner’s mind. His paintings demand an instinctual reading from the gut, heart and groin. The raw immediacy of the paintings is a far cry from the often cautious, cerebral approach. ‘I don’t think I trust my constructed thoughts,’ he says.
Females have a lot going on under the surface. Their story is more dramatic than men’s, I feel
The paintings appear as outcomes of an urgent drive to capture heightened emotional states. Metelerkamp’s modus operandi is suggestive of the German Expressionists who worked quickly to capture the peak of an emotional response before it burned itself out. In order to gain context and perspective of Metelerkamp’s body of work, Keepers, it might be useful to go back to the beginning. For all the edge-pushing evident in his paintings, Metelerkamp is unwilling to allow the risk inevitable in a spoken interview. He says he needs time to consider my questions and his answers, and opts rather for an email exchange. Metelerkamp takes me back five years to his post-rehab days when, in a directionless space, he spent a great deal of time on the couch, surfing TV channels. His filmmaker-photographer brother threw him a tough love lifeline in the form of an ultimatum. ‘Paint anything,’ he commanded. And Metelerkamp took hold of this. And in so doing, he turned the destructive Thanatos into creative Eros. As it does for many artists, ‘painting provides a cathartic release’ for Metelerkamp. The changes that painting full-time have brought have made him ‘now excited with life. Curious about people and all that they encompass. I am getting on very well with all of my family. And I enjoy people’s company now, which is a huge change for me,’ he says. Metelerkamp has ‘transmuted’ his ‘tumultuous behaviour into’ his ‘painting’.
a battle of sorts; inner turmoil with a resounding longing and request for relief
Originally Metelerkamp sculpted, a medium that he says came very easily to him. Although painting and sculpture are very different media, he explains that it taught him about form and structure. But he let sculpture go in favour of painting, as he felt that he ‘wasn’t pushing, as far as concept goes.’ Interestingly, at the time of our interview, he says he is in the process of returning to it. In keeping with most of Metelerkamp’s work, the eleven acrylic paintings that make up Keepers started as a single painting and organically progressed into a series. Each painting comprises paired, voluptuous, naked females painted in a Picasso-esque style who dominate assorted landscapes (occasionally, a man-made environment) that are dotted with tiny, seemingly less-significant figures. Each woman is depicted with dual faces. Keepers is firmly positioned in the artist’s highly personal iconography. Although he is not concerned with the political, he is fascinated by human nature and the behaviour that drives it. He is naturally drawn to ‘the experience of those on the fringes of society’, and he likes to think that his work ‘is the antithesis of stereotype’. Metelerkamp says that he understands people, and explains that though he will always try to portray humans in a sympathetic manner, his way of painting and thinking puts a subversive spin on his interpretation. Metelerkamp prefers the viewer to make up his or her own mind about the meaning of his paintings. Apart from Keepers’ emotional impact, there are some other inherent clues. The title holds the first one. For Metelerkamp, it suggests a ‘guiding force’. He does, however, describe Keepers as ‘a battle of sorts; inner turmoil with a resounding longing and request for relief.’