“Hers is a leavening and levelling force that damns pride and enshrines a mortal coil. Animistic and animalistic, what fascinates her is how everything spoils, ruins, dismembers, atomises.”Ashraf Jamal on Pauline Gutter
During the first year of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the painter Pauline Gutter embraced solitude in the pastoral landscape of South Africa’s Free State province where she lives and works. During this period, she mostly painted, and went on walks. She studied the landscape and its make-up more closely, considered the wildlife and the history of human connection with the land.
It is both the literal and thematic realities of this landscape that form a significant part of Gutter’s latest exhibition Primordial, currently on show at the University of Johannesburg’s Moving Cube gallery. Burned browns, yellows, and ochres characterise much of Gutter’s work. Ailing beasts, considered portraits, and dry, bristling landscapes are her subject matter. Similarly, being situated in the still and isolated settings of the Free State allowed for Gutter to observe and ruminate on not only the state of the arts but of society as a whole. Through the metaphor of cattle – represented as powerful, frenetic beasts in her paintings and prints – Gutter reflects on notions of mortality and immortality, death and decay, and the inevitable rejuvenation that follows.
‘We have been heading this way for some time,’ declares Gutter in her artist statement.
‘Before Covid we were on the edge of an economic disaster, and the fall-out of this current crisis is yet to be seen. Corruption in our country and on a global scale has become a norm and millions of jobs have been lost. Politically, the world seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos, with extremism and erratic behaviour even more common. Environmentally, we seriously risk being the first species to create our own mass extinction. Psychologically and sociologically, we are already a different species where hypersensitivity, depression and anxiety rule the day. Even our bodies have changed: with limited access to physical mobility and ever increasing “modern conveniences”, we are more fragile and less robust than our ancestors.’Pauline Gutter
All this, she argues, has led to a significant shift in how we act, see, look, make, and think. And how does Gutter respond to these contemporary and historical crises? She paints.
In contrast to the restrictions on movement as a result of the nationwide lockdown, Gutter’s paintings are free and gestural, relishing literal movement and philosophical mobility. This is apparent in both her subject matter – wild, hulking animals kicking up dust as they tear through the landscapes of the canvas – and also through her technique. As author and critic Ashraf Jamal notes in his essay on her work, ‘In Gutter’s case, there is the matter of unbreachable scale, her animality, the wild dervish-like movement of brush and hand, the obsessive-compulsive mark-making. But, over and above technique, there is the human being, the beast who paints. That she credits years of training as a ballet dancer as the root of her skill and approach, is revealing. Movement is vital because it is gestural. It requires intensive focus and great expansion.’
In terms of form, Gutter is equally contemplative and hands-on. In an interview ahead of the opening of Primordial, the artist explains how the process of preparing predominantly flax linen canvas served as the base of most of the oil paintings on exhibition. She also explained how the tactility of the exhibition, from monumental canvases to new lithographs, speaks to her current preoccupations.
‘I created large scale charcoals drawings and incorporated the medium of masking liquids into the works. This will age and serve as a marker of the time we lived through during the Covid-19 pandemic. Flight and inertia. Greedy corruption and people losing their jobs. A country feeling helpless – reverting to destructive behaviour. Fires and violence. Plundering and pollution,’ she says.
While works such as Pylvlak or The Uprising speak brilliantly, and perhaps more overtly, to the core animalistic themes being explored in Primordial, there are also the more tender and humanistic works like Waterwyser and the set of Vain Glory portraits that stand out in a landscape of burned coppers, cotton whites, and palpable animalistic forms. As a whole, Gutter’s body of work can be viewed as a rich and evocative exploration of the most ancient and universal forms of negligence, decay, and conflict. Still, throughout the expansive collection of works that feature in Primordial, there are the lasting notions of hope and regeneration, resting just below the active surface.