Gwen van Embden
Reviews & Comments
Updated 2012
Business Day 24 April 2017

Dark forebodings: Gwen van Embden hints at the landscape genre in her Mountain + Water series at her eponymous show at the AVA Gallery. Picture: SUPPLIED
Dark forebodings: Gwen van Embden hints at the landscape genre in her Mountain + Water series at her eponymous show at the AVA Gallery. Picture: SUPPLIED

At an exhibition titled Mountain + Water you expect to be confronted with landscape paintings. Yet there is a glaring absence of natural features in Gwen van Embden’s exhibition at the AVA gallery. Well, almost.

There is an eponymous series of small paintings in which nature can be detected; trees and a gently curved horizon is suggested. However, these features are blurred, on the verge of collapsing into abstract and unknown forms.

They are an ideal introduction to the rest of the exhibition, which consists of large abstract paintings where landscape settings are withheld, obscured or obliterated.

Van Embden does not lack the technique or abilities to paint landscapes; the sense of order and ideology required to render it is not available to her — or society.

The current sociopolitical conditions, locally and abroad, are so uncertain, marked by such chaos, disorder and violence that she is unable to trot out a landscape — it would be a deception.

Van Embden takes her cue from a Chinese tradition of landscape painting, although the word "landscape" does not exist in the country’s main languages. She reduces it to two main features: mountains and water. The natural scene becomes one in which a balance is struck between the two features. "When their materiality settles and disperses, the spirit of the landscape arises," she writes.

There is a disturbance when the forms become unstable, as in the small Mountain + Water series, or are eroded completely in the rest of the paintings on this exhibition.

This is not only visual but psychical, because the forms that should lead viewers of the works to unpack meaning are no longer present. This does not render the abstract works meaningless; another bleaker truth begins to assert itself — the landscape and the old order, schemes of understanding and deciphering reality and the world that has been obliterated.

The works, particularly those almost covered in thick impenetrable black paint, destroy the metaphorical lens and the landscape appears burned. Her pervasive dark forms drive home this sense of obliteration, evoking a "deep sense of crisis and an overbearing feeling of menace, of being faced with enormous threat", as she writes in her artist statement.

Van Embden’s art not only evokes the political crisis in SA, but also random terror attacks around the world that have spread fear and anxiety.

This is a sombre and pessimistic exhibition. Van Embden leaves you wishing you could see beyond the "darkness". Some of her forms promise order, there is a suggestion of Chinese characters saying something.

But nothing solid or recognisable can be detected.

Van Embden takes you into a space beyond definition that appears post-apocalyptic. When definition has been eroded, there is nothing left to hold on to. She leads viewers into a painterly cul-de-sac in which visual representation has been broken down completely to serve a function beyond representing reality.

Black canvases produced by Kazimir Malevich, Mark Rothko and locally by Zander Blom are a recurring sign of this condition and the tension between art reaching its endgame yet finding new possibilities. Black represents a threshold — not a barrier that can’t be crossed but a door that leads elsewhere.

• Mountain + Water shows at AVA Gallery in Cape Town until May 20.

Comments on Mountain+Water

"Your exhibition was inspiring to write about; it captures the spirit of the moment our society is in right now. An image I took from your exhibition was one of the most popular I have put on Instagram; people responded to it immediately!" – Mary Corrigall

"Congratulations on a wonderful exhibition, Gwen ­ such visual and emotional depth and marvellous brushwork, starting with those three tomatoes. I am doing two lectures on abstract art at the FynArts festival in June and will include some of your paintings ­ excellent images on your website." – Marilyn Martin

All Content Copyright © Gwen van Embden