It’s not only high art that speaks

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Maybe by now you’ve realised that we are – you name it – junk addicts, flea-market trawlers , fête bingers, rubbish luggers… How about collectors of crappola (a term coined by another shit magnet and great American artist, Philip Guston)?

One of my latest finds is this painting of a lady reading a book, obviously by an amateur artist. The initials and date in the corner are G.D. 1957. Decidedly old-fashioned and conservative ( compare it to Jackson Pollock’s works of the same time!), pleasing no one but himself and perhaps his sitter, without a shred of self-awareness, G.D., the Sunday painter, tackled his subject in a bubble of who-cares ignorance. For me the cheap, chipped plaster frame and slightly unpleasant paint application (saving paint?), even the ultimate mediocrity of the work, does not detract from its charm. But I see in it something more, something that urged me to come up with a R100 note for the vendor and bring it home to hang above the mantelpiece…

What is it? There is no reason to delve into what it tells us about making art or its formal qualities for these are minimal or non-existent . The subject. A woman simply reading a book – not a bible which would have given the whole work a undesirable ‘holy ‘ dimension and brought into play a rather sickly association with the yellow light behind her. Nostalgia elicited by the Penguin book cover is a factor. (And they have reissued those covers: light blue for big ideas, green for mystery, orange for fantastic fiction, pink for distant lands, dark blue for real lives, purple for viewpoints.) The shabby cotton dress, thickish neck, straight back, unadorned face and neat almost prim hair endears the sitter to me. It is obvious that G.D. has posed her with a book – a good position for a long session – and asked her to look at the page for the sake of authenticity, and she has done it, this compliant, good-natured soul.

But then – this is where I might be getting fanciful – I just can’t help believing that the mystery book’s magic has started to work and that she has begun to fall into the story she is pretending to read. There is a hint, the barest indication that she is on the verge of shrugging off that self-conscious awareness of posing. Perhaps it’s in the expression on her face or the flush of blood in the arms or the mute expressiveness of the hands holding the book, functional, plain, but beautiful. (Crazy, but Piero della Francesca comes to mind) Another mad leap this, but is there a subtle allusion to the content of the book in the shadowy mass on the left? Straight from the book, through G.D.’s subconscious mind, a form begins to emerge…

I have come to the reason I think I am so enchanted by this simple painting: the delicate tension between the world we are spatially in (where we present our social face to the world, do our hair, dress, sit decorously, pick up a book) and the ability of books to at any time take us away.

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