I arrived at David Krut Projects’ unlikely suburban bureau in Newlands on a wintry night and, parking between two swaying pine trees in the pitch dark, I half wondered whether I’d made a wrong turn. Crunching my way towards a soft murmur that had all the trademark intonations of artspeak, I was glad to have had this murky beginning because, rounding the corner, I found the gallery illuminated, as if hovering alone in space.
Information on Van Schalkwyk is scattered and enigmatic. Such are the problems associated with being a contemporary polymath. The more one delves the more the mystery deepens. He was in a band with Zander Blom? He recently published a novel, which was actually good? (It was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction prize. I read it in one sitting) If you care to learn more basic biographical facts about him, Google adds another barrier to clarity. There are, as misfortune would have it, two Jaco van Schalkwyks making art in Cape Town. The other Van Schalkwyk paints hyperreal landscapes that could scarcely be more different to our Van Sckalkwyk’s repertoire. Our man, triumphantly, is the one with the Wikipedia page.
Dolcefarniente, the title of this collection of prints, paintings, installations and ink drawings, translates from the Italian as “sweet doing nothing” but is more colloquially understood to mean “the sweetness of idleness”. Van Schalkwyk tells me that, improbably, the word is actually in the Afrikaans dictionary too. Like the Latin word ‘gratis’, I wonder aloud. He allows this, and we turn to the work.
The sound installation Guitar Bell greets us as we enter. An electric guitar hangs from a winch fixed to the ceiling, on the other end of which is a dangling microphone. As we approach, someone is trying intently to make a success of the contraption as a musical instrument, repeating attempts at achieving improved sounds from it. Her earnestness is captivating even if her effort is futile. There is absurdity in her endeavour to succeed via a mechanism that is set up to ridicule that very impulse. You cannot play this instrument well, Van Schalkwyk seems to be saying, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t amuse yourself by trying. Is this what he makes of his discipline: A futile but nevertheless amusing and worthy protest?
In spite of the show’s benign and wishful title, Van Schalkwyk is not a happy camper. To some extent this is to do with what is happening on his doorstep. A resident of the Cape Town neighbourhood of Sea Point, which has seen rampant, feverish development over the past five years – the median property price has tripled in that period – Van Schalkwyk appears offended by the brazen capitalist urge behind the facelift. Making his point with a wry flourish, Van Schalkwyk scrawls the words ‘Real Estate Nightmare’ in pink over a series of silkscreen prints of old residences earmarked for demolition.
Helplessness and futility argue with the show’s other dominant theme – a surprising and tender sentimentality. My Blue Period is a witty title for his installation of four pairs of knackered jeans from his 20s, hung on an aluminium ladder balanced on the rafters. Is it revealing that the money pockets are particularly tattered? Either way, here is one of many digs at the place he called home for much of that so-called blue period – the USA. An ancient macbook with a frazzled keyboard, another guitar installation surrounded by empty shotgun shells among other detritus and, most movingly, a neatly folded American flag atop a ceiling beam in the corner of the gallery all conspire to create the impression that Van Schalkwyk’s gripe with Trumpland is deep and layered. This smacks of a love affair gone wrong more than one involving no love to begin with. The fried laptop work Star Spangled Banner references Jimi Hendrix, fondly I assume, but conveniently, too. If Van Schalkwyk’s brand of art making was music it would be Hendrix-like vintage punk rock. As with his installation work – and much of the rest of it – Van Schalkwyk plays it loud, his chosen delivery not a polite objection but a raised middle finger.
And, like a seasoned muso, there is a precise and exacting hand behind the apparent disorder and chaos of these finished works. Punk music executed badly is worse than bad, but when rage is beautifully articulated it not only appeals but slices far deeper. As a practitioner, Van Schalkwyk has skill to burn, and on this score Dolcefarniente is note perfect. His series of graphic ink drawings make a cursory nod to Japanese ink-wash art but are made more complex by his use of crayon, graphite and charcoal alongside the ink. His method is like a garage version of the Japanese process; using a self-fashioned whip made from a broomstick and a cloth dipped in lithographic ink, he flayed the paper before working into each piece with the aforementioned materials. Further evidence of his forte – controlled chaos, deliberate disorder.
Waltz and W, both sugarlift aquatint works – a process of creating painterly marks on an etching plate – are riffs on the show’s headliner Allsorts. Bold, bright colouring make all three works flamboyant outliers in the collection but Allsorts, made with lithographic ink in walnut oil and painted on an aluminium sheet, is as close to his previous painted works as this show comes. The fact that the work is dated ‘2013-2016’ gives a clue as to why. Does the work get its name from the popular liquorice confectionary? You be the judge. If so, this is not the only time candy makes an appearance in the show. Whether by design or not, green M&Ms were both part of an installation and served as snacks. Art never tasted so good.
To deepen the conflation of art show and music event, Van Schalkwyk has a smoke machine on the go; at one point, having slightly overused it, the artworks disappear for a moment. This makes the artist laugh. In fact, his explosive and committed laughter soundtracks the evening. It’s the sort of laughter that seems to burst from a very unfunny place, as if he finds life so absolutely nerve-wracking and unamusing that laughter, like his art, is a vain but worthy release. A palpable sense of fun and an absence of fuss is clear and present throughout Dolcefarniente. Phones are plugged into exposed extension cords, cables mingle and knot themselves in messy disarray. A ladder used to install the work is left in a corner. But how much of this disorder is intended? Would he mind if someone were to move a stray shotgun casing? The artist shrugs.