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Unearthing ancient knowledge | A Q&A with Pauline Gutter

This June sees the launch of visual artist Pauline Gutter’s solo exhibition on the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Moving Cube platform. Titled PRIMORDIAL, the exhibition grapples with the universal themes of negligence, decay, and conflict – the duality of frugal survival versus the excessive waste brought on by exploitation of natural resources, but with the underlying hope of regeneration. PRIMORDIAL features monumental oil paintings and charcoal drawings from the artist, as well as new lithographs and monoprints. In light of the exhibition opening, we’re sharing a Q&A with the artist on her practice, the use of animality and the pastoral in her work (as well as her life), and the process of creating new work during a global pandemic.     

Pauline Gutter studio
360 of Pauline Gutter’s studio

The pastoral landscape of the Free State province in South Africa serves as backdrop to most of your artworks. What do you take thematically from this landscape and its inhabitants?
A search for a deep-rooted authenticity that resonates an understanding to viewers of the works. I propose a spatial layeredness. There is a certain vibrational frequency in the ochres and textures that surround my current living environment. Through mark making I try to capture the spirit and essence of the place. I spend a lot of time making live drawings or sketches in the landscape. This serves as research and unearthing of ancient knowledge as an equilibrium with nature.
     Practicing farming is humbling. I always recall my father’s words: ‘He who does not work, cannot eat’. Manual labour produces vegetables and weeding results in corn fields. Farming involves problem solving in the context of a farm practice and awareness of food production. 

Pauline Gutter art

You focus substantially on cattle as brutish animals in your large-scale paintings.  What do you communicate through this?
Cattle represent to me a core force of our African continent – it is currency within our mixed heritage of existence and migration. Cattle directly represent the environment I grew up in, that was passed down by my grandfather. The work ‘Lima’ is named after the Sotho word for plough and was inspired from the patent name of the implements originated by my father.  
     Bulls represent muscular power and Alfa. Cattle also represent the voiceless – the situation of farmers as food producers and their daily struggles. Their souls inherently connect us to the soil.
     They become portraits and ask open ended questions.

Your works simultaneously reflect mortality and immortality.  Do you allude to an ongoing cycle of life, death, and resurrection? What does it say about our present social construct?
In so many ways we have lost contact with what is real through the created construct of algorithms and GMO food production. We are exporting a great deal of our natural minerals and the use of single use plastic is having a great impact on our environment. 

Some of the works on the Primordial exhibition were completed during the hard lockdown period of the Covid-19 pandemic. What is your experience of life in the time of a pandemic? How has it affected your work, style, and thought patterns?
I have seen animals that I have never seen before in my whole life. A giant stork and a mountain likkewaan (an animal that looks like a lizard on steroids).
     At the beginning of the hard lockdown, while walking in the veld, I tried to rescue a duiker from a snare. In the struggle that followed, the bed of my thumb was penetrated by its antler. Armed with only one packet of plasters and scared to go to the hospital, which would have involved passing a military camp and a high security prison, I reverted to the ‘boereraat’ of treating my wound with salt water, in order to keep on working.
     I created large scale charcoal 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.

Pauline Gutter
Pauline Gutter in UJ Gallery

The tactility evident in the production of your oil paintings and drawings presents as multiple layers of media. Please tell us a bit more about your techniques and media used. 
The mysterious process of preparing predominantly flax linen served as the base of most of the oil paintings on exhibition. People do not paint with real pigments anymore. The collapsible oil paint was invented in 1940, and since then, anyone can mix and add fillers. I am drawn to natural fibres, pigments, and beeswax. My grandmother taught me to spin and weave from an early age – this is why I am drawn to natural materials and choose to live in a way that is connected and interdependent on a natural environment.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, no public opening events will be hosted at the UJ Art Gallery during 2021. A virtual walkabout with Pauline Gutter and Ashraf Jamal was streamed online on 9 June 2021. The physical exhibition at UJ Art Gallery ends on 21 July 2021 while the 3D exhibition can be viewed on Moving Cube until May 2022. For more of Gutter’s work, visit her website.

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