Writing Art History Since 2002

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Comedian Casper de Vries explains how a whole new passion for painting has led him to retire from comedy… at least for now.

After a 27-year career spent making people laugh, comedy legend Casper de Vries is changing direction, and this month he will be sharing his new passion with the world. The Joburg-based entertainer started painting two years ago and is having his first solo exhibition, called Art @ the Palace, from 21 February at Emperors Palace.

Casper de Vries

We know you as a comedian, so how did it come that you first picked up a paintbrush? What inspired you?
My brother draws very well. When I was little he used to draw pictures of animals and funny characters for me. That inspired me to start drawing myself, so for about two years in my early teens I drew mainly sketches of famous people. I still have those sketchbooks. Fast forward 34 years to 2011 when I picked up a paintbrush for the first time in my life. I’m good friends with the respected artist Michele Nigrini and one day, while visiting her in Rosendal in the Eastern Free State, I just had the sudden urge to paint so I painted a tree I saw outside her studio. This time it wasn’t the satisfaction of drawing, but playing with colours that had me hooked. After my visit, I went home, bought paintbrushes and canvasses and started to paint. I haven’t stopped since.  The vast colours of nature and the various ways one can apply them to one’s canvas to create an image worth looking at, is fascinating for me. That inspires me.
Critics may say that singers should stick to singing, actors to acting and you are now breaking that rule and straying into territory where you are not an expert as you are in comedy. What do you say to that?
It is like unexpectingly falling in love with someone else. When I realised that my fling with the brushes wasn’t temporary, I had a very serious conversation with Comedy and told him I’d met Painting. Comedy thought I was joking, but I explained carefully and with compassion that I am now obsessed with Painting and whether people like it or not, this is what I want to do. Comedy sneered. I hope to unite them under one roof one day and then we’ll live happily ever after.
Is this just a hobby you’re indulging until you do another one-man show, or do you see this as a career change?
I’d like to pursue painting as far as I can. Because I started painting from my guts, and have no formal training, I’m now slowly but surely getting acquainted with the more detailed history and styles of art and especially painting.
You’re turning 50 this year… does that milestone have anything to do with your decision?
My mom told me that both my dad and my brother changed direction in their careers when they reached 50. Maybe there is some little hereditary chip in our DNA. With me it certainly wasn’t conscious, I just realised I was getting tired of the genre and not as good as I wanted to be anymore.
Why Emperors Palace and not a gallery?
I have a special relationship with Emperors Palace, dating back to 2004. So I thought it would make logical sense to do my first art exhibition there, at the venue (Theatre of Marcellus) where I used to do my shows. So in a way my theatrical side is handing over the “baton” to the artistic side in the same space. We’ll remove the chairs so the paintings will be in the auditorium as well as on stage and I will be at the exhibition every day to meet people who want to come and have a look.
Comedy is very much done for an audience. Are you finding that you paint for an audience too, or is it more for yourself? And if it started for yourself, at what point did you want to show it off to the world by way of an exhibition?
I started painting just for myself. It was a kind of therapy. I went with my guts and natural instincts and painted things I felt the urge to paint. I was lucky that people like Michele saw it first and thought it was very promising. If they didn’t, I would most probably have continued painting for myself only. As I continued to paint, many in my close circle saw the results and their spontaneous reactions gave me the courage to approach a curator and organise an exhibition.
What inspires you artistically? Is it different for painting than it is for comedy?
I am sure that Michele Nigrini’s work inspired me, and being around her paintings for many years had a profound effect on me wanting to paint. Just as with comedy I draw inspiration from very good artists but I immediately try to make it my own. And I focus on never copying someone else’s work, unless it’s an homage of some sort.
What is the biggest differences and similarities for you in these two creative processes?
When I paint, the urge to incorporate something funny in the work is completely gone. It’s first and foremost about colour, about the aesthetics on a wall. The interpretive aspect of it then comes into play. I haven’t found just one style I’m happy with so at the moment I am experimenting with impressionism, expressionism, realism, abstract and many other styles and I really enjoy them all. I’m a young painter in that regard and we’ll see where it leads me eventually. I’m very sure humour will turn up as well!
Your formal study was in the field of drama, do you have any interest in formally pursuing a fine-art education now or are you painting primarily for fun? Is there any movement, artist or style that particularly interests you?
The love of art must have been present somewhere in my brain throughout all these years. Wherever I travel I always make museums and especially art museums part of the trip, so I’ve been to all the familiar ones like MOMA, the Louvre, the Guggenheim and so on. Now that I find myself immersed in art of course I’d like to go visit them all again. As I said I’m not trying to imitate somebody or a particular style; I just do what comes naturally. But that doesn’t mean one can be ignorant about art history and I’m definitely trying to catch up on my own. Luckily I love history so I find it extremely inspirational. I have got a stack of unopened DVDs about all manner of artists which I bought before I started painting. Artists I have discovered and rediscovered whose styles I love include Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Kandinsky, Pollock, Hockney, Marc, Klee and many many more.
Casper de Vries - Colour in Cubes
Casper de Vries, Colour in Cubes
How would you describe your style as a painter?
It varies between realism and utterly abstract. At the moment. But there is definitely a distinct style that you can start to recognise already and that I’m excited about.
What do you enjoy painting most, and do you have a favourite work in your collection?
At the moment I paint things I love and things that fascinate me. Like my mother or a fossil, if you’ll pardon the two examples! So I’ve painted my poor dogs ad nauseam and also some members of my extended family. I’m sure the ancestor whose artistic DNA was passed down to me lived thousands of years ago because I have a total fascination with rock art and cave painting. One of my favourite pieces so far is based on rock art.
When do you paint, and where? Tell us about your process.
I have specific areas outside and inside my home where I like to “park and paint”. I have also gone away to paint in seclusion with my two dogs, some dried mango and an iPad. I will decide after 2014 whether I should build a studio and where, but that is in the cards.
You’re a verbal storyteller and now your paintings have to tell the stories while you stand back and let people interpret them… do you find that difficult? Do you want to explain the story behind a painting?
I find that when one builds “messages” or deeper meanings into paintings (especially with abstract work) that is just a starting point. I actively aim to trigger the viewer’s imagination and let him then get lost in whatever world my painting got him into. Sometimes you can help the viewer with the title of the piece. But the miraculous thing of art and painting is that you can get the viewer to interpret things after you have just given him an artistic poke in the right direction.
What has been the biggest learning curve for you in this process and what about it have you enjoyed most?
The biggest challenge for me is not to become self-conscious in what I’m doing. I say that because I started painting from nothing and having no background or academic knowledge. I don’t want those things to hamper me in the natural process of painting. But I do study the theory and history of art and artists now because it fascinates me. So far the biggest challenge for me is to know when a painting is finished because you can tinker with it for 20 years. I’m learning to hear that voice which tells you, “that’s it, finished”.
What would you like to achieve with your painting; any specific objectives?
I’d love to be commissioned to do exhibitions so that I can give my creativity free reign. But that is still a far way to go. So my first humble objective is to prove that I am worth my salt as an artist.
Your outspokenness about being gay and an atheist has created a lot of controversy in recent years among your traditional audience and you have said that you don’t mind losing narrowminded fans who object. Can we expect the same kind of controversy in your painting?
I’ve definitely thought about all kinds of edgy and controversial themes for the future. I like to push the envelope so let’s see when that starts to happen. It’s all to do with confidence so once I’ve built up enough I’ll start to explore more controversial topics.
What audience are you targeting – the same people who come to your shows?
A small percentage of my audience would like my paintings I’m sure. But my aim here is to introduce myself to other markets, nationally and internationally. It’s like starting all over again. Some people will know I paint because of my name but that’s where the advantage stops, because they’re not necessarily going to get a one-man show on a piece of canvas.
Are you as nervous or excited for your first exhibition as you were for your first one-man show all those years ago? What are you hoping for?
I’m extremely excited to show the paintings at last because remember, I’ve been working on this first batch for two years now, and it’s time for them to get some fresh air! Unlike a theatre show I can’t forget my words or panic that some technicality can go wrong. As long as paintings are ready and viewable on the date I’m happy! I will also be there every day during the exhibition week.
If I can’t make it to the exhibition, where can I see your work?
After the exhibition all the exhibition pieces as well as other work will be available for viewing and/or purchase in an online gallery at www.caspershop.co.za. I already have a date set for a second exhibition in Cape Town and another in Bloemfontein later this year.
Art @ the Palace takes place at Theatre of Marcellus, Emperors Palace, from 21 to 27 February 2014, 15h00 to 21h00 daily.
Courtesy of Melinda Shaw / Shaw Media

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