GALLERIES: In search of truth with acid and iron

Friday March 23 2018

Who taught you how to smoke trees, left, and Give us this day, by Justus Kyalo. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


People find abstract art difficult. They feel it lacks references and is hard to unlock. What exactly do these shapes, swirls and squiggles mean?

I know this because for years I too was put off by the seeming irrelevance of abstract paintings and sculpture to my life, even though I enjoyed some of the colours and surprises they contained.

And then it struck me that all art is an abstraction by the artist of what is perceived to be the reality of the subject.

In any case it is paint, or stone, or printer’s ink or whatever, not real life — although the skill of the artist can tell us more about real life than the living subject itself.

Objects do not have thick black lines around them, nor are they made of bold, stabbing strokes nor little dots of colour. And if not that, why not pure pattern in which the artists’ feelings and not the objects are shown? It is a matter of degree.

Art is a distillation of truth; the interpretation of subjective reality.


It is fascinating to stand on the same spot as a famous artist and see what he or she saw, then to look at that artist’s version of truth (allowing of course for inevitable changes over time).

I have done this in the Stour Valley, in East Anglia, where John Constable lived and worked and at various places in the Lake District painted by JMW Turner and it is amazing how they changed the course of a river, straightening out an awkward kink, or planted a copse to balance a meadow and altered or created a building, like a barn, to improve composition.

Others added ships to a seascape or birds to a lake, not because they suddenly hove into view but to give the eye something to hold on to.

Artists as God — and that’s before we even get started on the palette. Yet what they produced is accepted as true to that place. They made its reality more intense through an abstraction of the elements that gave it its particularity.

The term abstract art is convenient — we all know what it means — but perhaps a better description would be non-figurative art.

Viewing it can be curiously liberating. Instead of considering whether or not the artist has accurately reproduced — or expressed — anatomy, or the shape and weight of a bowl, or a landscape, what we are seeing boils down to an interplay of composition, colour and line to project emotion, an experience or a message.

Titles seem not to help. They are usually whimsical and have little obvious relationship to the work before us. \

But the picture plane assumes even greater importance in non-figurative works, as we are offered a choice of seeing the painting fleetingly as surface decoration or can be seduced into entering the space beneath the surface, becoming immersed in the experience of reliving the artist’s moods and sensibilities.

The American Colour Field painter Mark Rothko was expert at that, encouraging the viewer to look deeply into the shifting, glowing spaces he created with, as the critic Robert Cumming points out, deceptively simple areas of soft edged colour that melt and move in the viewer’s consciousness.

It is to this latter group that the Kenyan Justus Kyalo belongs, as a current exhibition shows even more clearly than before.

Instead of purely paint and canvas, his tools have broadened to include sulphuric acid and water poured and brushed onto galvanised iron sheets. The longer the acid stays on the surface the deeper it bites and the darker the rusted finish.

Fourteen of these pieces are at the Red Hill Art Gallery, off the road from Nairobi to Limuru, until April 15.

Their inspiration is the Athi Plain around his home and studio in Kitengela. Some can be read as landscapes seen at eye level, others as bird’s-eye views. Two of the works, perhaps the most reductive, offer the horizon as bars repeated like a ladder on the sheet.

One of three untitled works indicates the way forward for this inventive and imaginative artist — a slick of dark oil paint quietly asserts itself among the acid washes.

At the end of the day, a painter uses paint.

This is a deeply satisfying exhibition; one that repays immersion.

Elsewhere, Nairobi seems to be relaxing the rigour of figuring out non-figurative paintings by having a wildlife moment, with exhibitions at the Polka Dot gallery in Karen and at Muthaiga Country Club.

Showing at the Polka Dot until April 1 is the American photo-realist Guy Combes. He occasionally isolates his subjects against colourful patterns, presenting them as specimens snatched from their habitat. Others place them in the dappled savannah or forest glade.

Also showing technical verve are the paintings and drawings of Nicola Heath, at Muthaiga Country Club over this weekend. Combes isolates animals, Heath isolates parts of them — an elephant’s eye for instance — and gives them the full photo-realist treatment.

These are paintings with a popular touch and I admire their skill in the same way that I gaze in wonder at prayers engraved on a grain of rice.
Go figure.