Sam Nhlengethwa

I’m always keen to see paintings. Because it is one of the oldest, and most ‘traditional’ of the art forms is precisely why I find painting so fascinating. How contemporary artists reinterpret the medium, expand it, make it their own is either fascinating or a dismal disappointment.

Sam Nhlengethwa’s been around, so my art friends assure me. He’s studied at university and he’s been interviewed on Top Billing (?). I’ve never seen his work. Last Thursday he opened at The Goodman, and of course, I went along.

At first glace I wasn’t sure what the fuss was about. The paintings were bright, stylised and bold. But then, whilst making my way around the gallery, the works began to grow on me. Large slabs of solid background colour contrast carefully stylised figures, which come to life in a strange way. Domestic scenes, banal, yet poignant in their simplicity; carefully studied snapshots of everyday life. The figures are at odds with their surroundings, out of place, awkward.

Covering most of the main wall of the main gallery is a massive mixed media work depicting a section of Newtown, which again uses large blocks of colour and found media. Apparently this is what he’s best known for. It’s impressive, the sheer scale of it, and is interesting in it’s subtle textures and shapes. The found objects are assimilated seamlessly into the paintings as clothes, posters, road signs. Yet they remain distinct and stark; add-ons; cultural assimilation and appropriation. On the adjacent wall is another textural piece, this time the image is woven into the fibres of a rug.

However, it’s really Nhlengethwa’s watercolours that impressed me. His simple lines, delicate colours and stylised features convey an ironical playfulness. They’re kind of quirky, but are they supposed to be?  I’m not completely sure, but I liked them.

Nhlengethwa’s work is both nostalgic and modern. He’s no farm boy, but he might have once been. His work looks back, critically, and in so doing moves forward.

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