Much to the ire of his critics and other art insiders, Paul du Toit, the self-taught outsider, has achieved remarkable success in ten short years. In spite of his detractors, he has mounted a successful international career, while consistently presenting sold-out exhibitions at respected Cape Town galleries. His latest show at 34LONG is no exception. Capitalising precisely upon that which most troubles his critics – “the aesthetically pleasing canvases” with appealing colours – Du Toit presents 24 new paintings which clearly are the work of a more mature artist who has become a proficient colourist, and savvy at manipulating complexities of line.
Like many of his peers, who grew up as distinctions between high art and popular culture were disintegrating, Du Toit developed a lexicon that blends modernist influences with a healthy helping of cartoon-culture. But there’s more to it than that. Du Toit gets his edge from three years of his youth spent in hospitals confined to a wheel chair. During those years his medicine became the books his parents brought him on Picasso and Miró.Suffering from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Du Toit’s hands were regularly treated with hot molten wax – a likely source for the thick viscous materials he uses to create his richly textured paintings. Du Toit’s confinement is also manifested in the tight boundaries of his picture plane which enclose the colourful cartoonesque subjects of his quirky portraits. Over the past two years, however, he has progressively pushed those boundaries outward. The new works at 34LONG attest to this on-going process, as Du Toit continues in the development of a more dynamic and more narrative format. This is evident in the interplay among the four figures in the expansive High Tide, which also shows the artist’s movement toward a less cartoonish, less literal, and more abstract idiosyncratic vocabulary. High Tide and the other paintings on show grew out of Thrill, a considerably smaller but no less dynamic work.Here expressions of anger and fear bounce off one another in a double portrait, incongruously rendered with Du Toit’s characteristic upbeat palette and playful gestures. Charging the work with an emotional tension, this frequently employed incongruity stands at the crossroads in the debate over Du Toit’s work. For his critics, the colours and gestures are the end of the road, but for others that’s only half of the picture. Beyond lies a broader spectrum of psychological and emotional expression that undoubtedly is linked to issues surrounding confinement and the struggle for liberation.These issues are also present in eight new paper pulp works and eight new painted-bronze sculptures, displayed in the upper gallery. Abandoning the more sophisticated technique Du Toit achieved earlier with paper pulp, he now turns to an experimental approach. The new paper pulp works are the results of an attempt to liberate the image by technically separating it from the background.This is evocative of Du Toit’s sculpture, which appears to be formed from elements that separated from the backgrounds of his paintings – a quality clearly apparent in the pronounced cut-out nature of the brightly painted new bronze pieces. Unlike previous sculptures, however, the new works are not based upon specific paintings, but nevertheless are indicative of the close association with painting that characterises his sculpture. Although both the sculpture and paper pulp work provide deeper insight into his issues and processes, it is Du Toit’s new paintings that reveal the greatest resolution.