Degrees of Separation
BY LIANNE BURTON
I am an avid admirer of Gabrielle Raaff's work. In fact, I bought the first painting of hers I ever saw. The appeal of her unique sensibility is deeply personal to me, and almost utterly unconscious. Simply put, her paintings stir me. In a world of strong opinions, sweeping statements and slick packaging, I love her tentativeness. It is brave to be uncertain as an artist. It is even braver to reveal that uncertainty to the world. Uncertainty unnerves people. It gets our backs up. We fear it, just as we recognize it as being one of the things that makes us human.
Gabrielle's painting is shaped by a process of intuitive 'mark-making' rather than by any pre-conceived conceptual intention. Technically, there is no drawing first, no sharply defined border. As a result, her paintings are subtle and nuanced, avoiding neat categorization and tending instead towards fluidity and allusion. 'When I was younger I was self-conscious that I didn't work conceptually,' she recalls. Yet, if there is something that defines her art, then it is the inherent contradiction of it… the gentle intensity, the unassuming beauty.
Previously working in large-scale oils, Gabrielle was forced to abandon spirit-based materials when she contracted an autoimmune illness in 2004. It took her three years to recover fully, and in the process her skin became painfully sensitive to fumes. 'I began to work in watercolour in 2006 out of necessity,' she says. 'And then I was seduced by the medium. I loved the immediacy of it. It's so clean and gentle and unobtrusive. It felt absolutely right for my fragile physical state.'
Working in watercolour also presented challenges, especially for an artist wanting to explore the tough issues of modern urban living. 'Watercolour has the tendency to be quite sweet and kitsch,' says Gabrielle. 'It has all the traditional associations with romantic pastoral landscapes. Yet I've always lived in the city and have been surrounded by the noise and people within the urban environment. The city landscape offers various perspectives and geometric planes and surfaces from rooftops to roads to windows. All these I find very interesting. I think what also interests me about the urban environment is the contrast between the crowd and the individual. On a more philosophical level it's about mass consciousness as opposed to individual consciousness. And, of course, there's the intuitive response to where we are at globally - our population crisis and consumerism in regards to waste and resources. Without necessarily dealing with these issues in a political sense I am interested in how we manage to live in the city, within the juxtaposition of great beauty and great ugliness.'
In order to prevent her Google Earth-inspired cityscapes from becoming too picturesque, and to maintain the figurative nature of the work, Gabrielle reduced the colour palette and removed details like cars and people. 'It became apparent to me that the more I limited the palette, the more the image seemed to suggest pattern and fabric printing. So the word "fabric" is descriptive of what goes on in a city, with all the layers coming from different directions and forming some sort of cohesion. Of course, there is a schism between the emblematic beauty of these paintings and the unpleasant social truths they reveal.'
Gabrielle's experiments with watercolour also revealed an unforgiving aspect of the new medium. 'Though it's gentle and soft, watercolour is like a stain,' she says. 'Once it's there, it can't be removed. Unlike with oils, where you can work in layers, the marks you make with watercolours never disappear, so the history of your mark making remains. I started consciously using the pigment as a watermark… and unconsciously I think there was also the idea that one is marked for life.'
For her portraits of foreign nationals, Gabrielle chose to accentuate the idea of the paint as a 'stain' by working on whitewashed construction plyboard - with its connotations of migrant labor - an exceptionally unforgiving surface for watercolours. 'For me portraiture is about the challenge of capturing the essence of someone's character,' she says. 'Telling a story in a face.'
'Meeting some of these foreigners, I realized that they have to live in relative anonymity in our cities.' As with her cityscapes, Gabrielle limited the colour palette and removed most of the context in the portraits. 'There is always the theme of the unfinished within my work,' she explains. 'I like to stop myself before something is completely described. That way, there is a space between what I have envisaged and what the viewer needs to complete…the viewer's journey. I provide just enough information for the story to begin.' The story told in these works hints at the things that unite and divide us. The message is gentle yet insistent…a soft bruise that leaves a stubborn mark.
BY GABRIELLE RAAFF
'In Our Midst' - An Exhibiton of Paintings by Gabrielle Raaff
'My current paintings are delicate watercolours that reflect on issues of intimacy and isolation within the urban environment.' Gabrielle Raaff
This new exhibition, which has been about 3 years in the making, has as its starting point a work called 'Dislocation'. This is a series of four watercolours on paper that capture four different residential locations in Cape Town.
What is significant is that the paintings began with the idea of difference and safety. Looking at the addresses of some of the people in my life at the time - two of my students, one who lives in Grassy Park and the other in Mitchell's Plain; my housekeeper, who lives in Joe Slovo; and an old acquaintance from Bishop's Court - I was struck by how different these worlds are to mine. Issues of safety and security are raised as a female living in South Africa, and my own prejudices of safety in visiting these areas. Google Earth offered me a simple and safe way of "visiting". Clearly, I would remain both safe and removed from the cultural and sociological differences of these people, but I would nevertheless get to see what their homes looked like.
My fascination with Google Earth maps and their ability to bring us relatively close to any chosen destination - though the image becomes quite pixilated - informed my process of painting. The patterns that emerged from distilling the photographic reference, I found both beautiful and chillingly revealing of our differences.
Moving from this point I continued to work in both watercolour and with Google Earth, exploring the city that I live in, Cape Town. I began observing people and buildings from unusual perspectives - from parking lots and vantage points of high buildings and aeroplanes. With distance, our differences seemed strangely clearer. I chose to focus only on reflecting bodies and buildings and not the contextual details such as roads, cars, signage etc. In this way body language and details of space, as reflected in minimal paint strokes, end up telling the story.
As a female South African, who has personally experienced violence and assault in the past two years, issues of safety are of constant concern. What I am interested in pursuing, however, is how I can begin to break my own barriers of prejudice. As a painter I work intuitively from what occurs in my personal life as well as how I am affected by the world that I live in.
The large portraits on wood were a result of once again coming into personal contact with the foreign, the other. In this case the literal foreigner. In the past several years I have met and employed a number of foreign nationals who have assisted me in my home and studio. I was naturally disturbed by the ongoing violence directed at these people and in particular at these people that I had come to know quite well. The progression from the aloof and distanced perspectives of Google Earth to the more personal portrait painting has been a natural one. Ironically, all titles of the portraits remain anonymous, for obvious reasons.
Gabrielle Raaff is a painter, product designer and educator. 'In Our Midst' is her second solo exhibition.
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