John is well-known for his realistic paintings of small town shops and algemene handelaars – a project which he has been pursuing relentlessly since the early 1970s, when he first realised that these “ordinary” buildings were disappearing – “the supermarket was coming to town”. John has travelled extensively looking for subject matter, visiting many small towns and dorps to photograph the buildings he loves to paint. He has built up a huge archive of source material in the process, much of it reflecting small town South Africa.
Concentrating on light and shadow, tonal values, verticals and horizontals and by eliminating any presence of living beings from his paintings, he has created a body of works that is uniquely South African.
I am endlessly fascinated by the buildings, shops, bioscopes and general dealer stores that lie scattered across South Africa, especially those of the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape and Karoo.
In the early 1970s, fearing they may soon be demolished, I began to photograph these buildings in my home town of Worcester, in the Western Cape. The supermarket was coming to town. Television was still to make its presence felt. I wanted to preserve their memory.
In trying to establish my voice as a painter and searching for a focus, I realized that the everyday buildings of my youth meshed with my idea of doing something essentially South African. This concept crystallized after my first overseas trip to Europe in 1974, when I returned to Cape Town and realized how extraordinary the local townscape was and how much it differed from its European counterparts. Influenced by the photo-realism movement of the time, I began to use the buildings in my photographs as the subject matter for my realist works.
My paintings are not about architecture as such, about structures that have been designed; instead, they have to do with buildings that have grown and matured over time, that show the ravages of alteration, that reveal their amusing quirks and peculiarities, with all the eccentric bits and pieces added by their owners.
The first step is to observe and compose through the eye of the camera. This can be a very satisfying process, for the photographic image has its own reality. If no one else recorded the building at the time, that moment in its life is unique. In a way, it is the photograph that preserves the memory and becomes the subject of the painting.
I try to create paintings that have an intensity about them. I have been told that my images seem frozen, eerie and surreal. What makes them so, in my opinion, is the absence of living elements. This is a deliberate omission to draw attention to the buildings themselves. The facades become a kind of portrait. I want the viewer to concentrate on the structural detail, advertising and lettering. The strong light, so typical of South Africa, that casts shadow, texture and pattern over the structure is emphasized. I try to comment on a particular kind of building that expresses something of the people who built, lived and worked in it, but who themselves are not necessarily conscious of the image it conveys.
Over the years my painting style has loosened. I now place more emphasis on brushstrokes and paint texture than I did in my earlier works, which tended to be harder, flatter and more hyper-realistic. I remain a realist. This is the only approach that is able to put across the message I want to convey. With realism, you have to be calculated – you cannot just work from the heart or the imagination – because the weight of every element counts.
Ultimately, my aim is to create a painting that makes a statement about a specific place that existed at a specific moment in time.