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UNTITLED Jaco van Schalkwyk INTERVIEW - Matthew Freemantle


Jaco van Schalkwyk arrives at our meeting place, a smart café across the road from his Bree street studio that has optimistically attempted to marry luxury cars with macchiatos, looking disheveled. He has had a long night, certainly not his first, and there is a faint smell of alcohol on his breath. Dressed in what can only be described as ‘Cape Town formal’, he matches a suit jacket with flipflops, a combination that might go some way to describing the man himself; a serious man, but a pragmatic one too. What it doesn’t tell you is how funny he is. It was the poet Rilke who said, “Almost everything serious is difficult; and everything is serious”, but Van Schalkwyk appears to share his view, gravely applying himself to his art with a painstaking, methodical and, yes, pragmatic approach that yields hard-won but immeasurably satisfying riches. He speaks quickly but deliberately throughout our meeting, measuring his words, selecting them. Art is a serious business, and we begin with a quote of his own, “you’re either making art or you’re making hot I had a plan for this interview, but maybe we should abandon the plan in the spirit of how I think you approach your art: opportunity for chance within a set form. Yes. In any case, I had a strange night last night. Freaked out. When you freak out, what do you physically do? Do you just sit there, or pace around, what? Well, losing control is losing control. I can’t put a word to it. It is what happens. [laughs] What is the difference between an artist with no work and just an unemployed person? Let me put it to you this way – what I do is also an elaborate form of begging. I try to create really, really enticing ways to ask you for money. We can all do that, which is wonderful, but you need some education in this matter. Constable said that ‘a self-taught artist is someone taught by an ignorant person’. You need some instruction but the potential is there – every person has the proclivity to make art. This is the great Marxist ideal: that we fish in the morning and write in the afternoon. That is the culmination of the revolution, not working in a mine or an office. So, what is the difference between an unemployed person, say, and an artist? Hopefully nothing. What guides you, then? I have a sort of a spirit animal, if you like, which came to me in a vision in Los Angeles, in a Holiday Inn. I saw this leopard in a neon tree, a tree of neon green and it was pawing at me saying ‘Look at these spots. Whenever you see me, remember that you need to take care of your first-order principles’. And that is a process of constant redefinition of what things are, because everything is in flux. The way we come to definition, the way we define things - those are first-order principles. And so one’s philosophy might be set and as such there are constraints but the process of redefining how we define is constant and never ending, which is why we can make art until the moment we die, hopefully. In an older interview you point readers to an essay by Bridget Riley titled At The End Of My Pencil. I read it with great interest and the central word seemed to be “inquiry”. She seemed to be saying that for an artwork to be worthwhile, its cre-

ator needs to approach it with the understanding that she knows nothing. It is a process of asking rather than telling. I have never liked being told what to do. I don’t want to be told what to do. When you say inquiry, my first thought is Michelangelo, especially with drawing. Drawing is a focused, singular inquiry into the unknown. Essentially drawing is thinking. And thinking is asking and figuring something out for yourself, as opposed to being okay with just being told about the way things are. Every drawing is a question, and you would not be questioning knowledge if you were okay with being told what to do by it, you know? Is there simply art and non-art, or is there such a thing as “bad” art? Oh, there is definitely such a thing as bad art. Does it matter, though? Doesn’t time eventually sort the wheat from the chaff? Time sorts it all out. The viewer is not the guy who owns everything. The viewer is time. Posterity. It is unimportant what people think. Time is the viewer. Still, a lot of artists whom time has eventually recognized, have long since died when it does. Often, said artists have had a torrid time when they were alive and ignored. Francis Bacon said it takes about 75 years for it to all sort itself out. What do you make of this? Cezanne is a great example of that. They said he couldn’t paint. [laughs] Another of Riley’s suggestions in her essay was that “relinquishing some cherished notion or something that you have relied on” was part of the destructive side to creative life which she called “essential to an artist’s survival.” Francis Bacon has also talked about destroying what you love most about something in order to be free enough to create. The writer William Faulkner said that in writing “you should kill all your darlings”. He might not be being literal but he, like the others, is honing in on an idea I wonder if you might share – that acting habitually or resting on familiar ideas and favoured methods might be an obstruction to making art. It comes down to actually killing things, and you experience all the trauma that goes with that. But essentially, we are dealing with pragmatism. Because everything is in flux, we must guestimate or ballpark-figure our way through what we’re doing - we are never exactly sure. The moment you’re exactly sure, you’re making hot dogs, not art. So yes, I’d say repeating familiar ideas precludes art from being made. Also, liking or not liking is a very simplistic way of looking at something incredibly complex. So by liking or not liking, you’re kind of missing the point.

that you might begin to mistrust comfort, familiarity and other such things and make mistakes by cutting out things that you as a human being actually need. How do you reconcile this? I don’t know. But I love my girlfriend and she helps me with this problem. What do you want to do, if anything, with your art? I feel that my purpose is to question first-order principles. I’m calling for a rethink of the rules that we make. Like, I don’t believe there is a distinction between form and colour. I question the distinction. Or the exact nature of the distinction. Perhaps the distinction needs to be updated. Riley went back to square one, literally, in order to rediscover her fascination with the creative process. You spent much of your 20s not engaging with art at all. What brought you back? I stopped drawing for six years after I finished studying. In fact, it happened while I was studying. I stopped making art entirely. I was concerned with forms I was using but didn’t understand. I didn’t have the ability to understand the forms I was interested in working with. When did this change?

What clicked was realising that if everything is in flux and everything is constantly changing, then my picture of a tiny constrained space is going to be similar to the whole picture. Stop trying to fuck around and say shit about things you don’t understand. If everything is infinitely complex, don’t do stuff that you don’t understand. Deal with what you have. That dream that you had and the relationship you have with this leopard character – you are clearly listening to prompts from an alternative source. Listening to voices in your head is conventionally considered to be a form of madness. What do you say to that? I grew up in apartheid. That is madness. So my not listening to instruction seemed like the sanest thing to do. So if it’s about leopards coming to me in hotels in Los Angeles, I’ll take that any day over some fuck telling me that I have to hate other people. To me, art is about affirming that man is one. Always has been. We are affirming our humanity and our shared existence. I still believe in that dream and will until I die, no matter what this incarnation of democracy does. It is another government doing whatever it is doing. I will not stop believing in that rainbow, that fairytale, that thing. That is not going to change. Because I know what the alternative is. I grew up in it. So I’d rather be mad, thank you. [laughs] What is the worst thing about being an artist?

It was when I came back to South Africa. I had no money. I was living in my mother’s house approaching thirty. I took an office job for the first time in my life and it was just terrifying. It blew my mind how mundane a life without making art was. Whenever I got drunk, I’d pull out the last drawings I made in NY and go “Look, I used to do that!” One night I showed them to a friend I’d just met – the painter MJ Lourens– and he convinced me to exhibit them at Stuart’s place (Cameo Framers) in Pretoria. They all sold. And I didn’t miss them when they were gone. I just felt relieved, like the drawings were finally finished because somebody else was getting to enjoy them. Finally letting go of those drawings made me understand things differently. There is great joy in communicating something. What’s the point of making stuff and keeping it under your bed for six years? Did this mean you were able to see your exact position at the coalface?

The shittest thing about being an artist? That people expect you to be fantastic forever. That’s insane. That you’re going to be brilliant for decades and decades and decades. I mean. Matisse is a special case. He had a great decade when he was young and then ended with a flourish. He had two decades of brilliance! Bacon was brilliant in the 60s and it’s debatable if he was brilliant by the end. He would debate the same thing. This is what killed Johannes Kerkorrel (Ralph Rabie) – that he had to fucking reinvent himself every time he went on stage. Too many people in this country think that if you’re in the newspapers you’re rich. We’re struggling, man. Art and culture are in trouble. We don’t make money easily. Count on one hand the number of people who are making a great living out of art. That is the toughest thing; that people assume that you’re fabulously wealthy if you’re on television. It’s not the case. INFO: www.jacobvanschalkwyk.com



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Practicing this rigorous inquiry and discipline of not allowing habit or comfort of familiarity to poison the “meta workspace” as you called it, must make living your actual life difficult in THE LAKE



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