In-situ landscape paintings of the South African Cape scenery by artist Niel Jonker - art that reflects the process and power of the moment.

Niël Jonker

press article

Painting Nature

On some mornings it seems there is an even greater urgency to look with exaggerated concentration at the scene in front of one. If, for instance, there is a thin layer of mist just above the hills, moving gently into nowhere, it is imperative that one notices this as every moment passes, so as not to miss the event. The hills may seem to be as disturbingly transient as the changing of the light when the sun is still low, but rising. One moment they are pink, their edges are blurred and their horizons left only to deduction. The next, quite literally, they are a bluish green and trees stand where they did not a moment ago. Quite unexpectedly the landscape seems to be asserting its true identity, but only for now. What is one to think of this supposed concrete reality when it behaves thus? What is one to make of perception when very fine water droplets and soft, seemingly innocuous, shards of morning sunlight can do an odd sort of dark magic? Quite evidently, there is nothing enduring about a morning scape, and the only way it can be captured, it seems, is to do so by looking very closely and working very fast. There simply is no time for tea, when painting what you see.

When you look ahead in the road, and you see the tunnel that you are going to pass through as a gap the size of the top of your thumb, you know that perception and reality have a strange relationship. If a hole, no bigger than two square centimetres, in the side of a hill no larger than the palm of your hand, can fit a car and truck side by side, then it seems it is quite possible for a landscape to exist in a space no bigger than fifteen by twenty centimetres. And then the painting of such a landscape, on a canvas of this exact dimension, is something like painting the landscape in life size. It is the delicious tension between this sense of perceptual immediacy and the transient luminosity of a so called concrete reality which Niël Jonker is intrigued by in his life paintings.

The only solution available is to regard such paintings as ends in themselves. Evidently, claims should be made that such renditions represent some sort of reality outside of the painting itself. Because it is quite possible that the exact landscape would never be repeated. This is so despite every effort being made by the artist to "say it like it is". Such paintings must simply be regarded as their own beings, and all that is left to the observer is to stake perceptual ownership of the image given. It is the task of the observer to celebrate the self-contained nature of the painting and to keep going back to it to see what it can yet reveal. For it would be a grave mistake to think that, because the image in a painting is not subject to the fickleness of nature, that it is, therefore, immediately and fully available to the onlooker.

As with the tradition of observing a Whistler or Poussin landscape, it is equally necessary to avoid the seemingly lofty pursuit of the ideal interpretation. Instead, as with looking at nature, it should be impossible to see anything beyond the immediate beauty of a moment in time. But this, in itself, is not a task which is achieved within one moment, and these paintings of Jonker offer an opportunity, unlike nature itself, to come back, again and again, and be entranced by the concreteness of each natural moment.

Carin Goodwin
16 September 2008