Hermann Niebuhr

Gallery on the Square Johannesburg

Jack Kerouac’s staccato prose in On the Road (1957) encapsulated the fragmentary and transient experience of journeys. Akin to Kerouac, landscape painter Hermann Niebuhr tries to articulate similar themes in visual form. Niebuhr left the cityscapes of Johannesburg to explore the rural setting of De Rust, at the foot of the Swartburg Mountains in the Karoo. A Month of Sundays is a personal meditation on this space and place. Using the landscape as his muse the artist provides eclectic expressions of its roads, animals and nature in oil on canvas.The majority of the large-scale works are blurred portraits of tarmacs that wind through the Karoo. In these compositions, such as Karoo Road II, car lights emerge as floating red lozenges; reflective landmarks such as road signs and speed controls are the only clearly distinguishable features against an imprecise background. The murky landscapes communicate a sense of the indistinct and fleeting impressions formed of unfamiliar landscapes while travelling. Certain works include various livestock that border the works or float like translucent effigies on the hazy compositions. Goat is a particularly strong piece, rendered in photorealist fashion. The bold asymmetrical composition of a goat viewed from a low angle against a brilliant blue sky captures an arbitrary feature of the Karoo landscape without sentimentalising the image.Unfortunately Niebuhr’s Water series, which describes a variety of Karoo water features in small-scale paintings, falls victim to clichéd and saccharine artistic renditions. A particularly weak work is a pastoral scene of water bordered by a fence. Against the fence rests two white gumboots. The footwear recalls Van Gogh’s peasant shoes, but without the humble reverence and artistic skill of this artist. While Niebuhr may be playing with outsider views of the Karoo landscape, views that often construct the image of an idyllic pastoral, such intentions are not clear in his work. Rather, the series comes off as uninspired and somewhat patronising. This is disappointing given that Niebuhr has shown sensitivity to the articulation of landscape and its arbitrary details in previous works. These more ‘palatable’ works are perhaps the product of displaying in a gallery that caters to the aesthetic demand of a mainstream audience. Warning signs to such a direction are also evident in the twee text painting that introduces the exhibition, which poetically pronounces “A Month of Sundays” in curly brown typeset against a beige background. It is all a bit too heavy-handed.The exhibition concluded with a number of abstract works. These range from colour field paintings to more geometric compositions in a similar aesthetic to Austrian painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Niebuhr shows sophistication in his use of colour, it is used boldly throughout the exhibition without becoming garish. His colour combinations are particularly strong in his abstract pieces, which also have a greater texture than the slick road portraits.Despite their common inspiration – the Karoo landscape – the display of the works on this exhibition comes across as somewhat incoherent. Artworks are clumped into simplistic categories: abstract, road works and water series. A more inventive curatorial approach would have resulted in a more engaging display, promoting a more productive artistic dialogue across the exhibition space.
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