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Finding his art footing – from Instagram to Stellenbo...

Maverick Life

MATTERS OF OBSESSION

Finding his art footing – from Instagram to Stellenbosch to Paris

"Elements" by Andre Serfontein. Images: Supplied

Andre Serfontein has drawn and painted all his adult life, constantly refining his technique, but it wasn’t until he started posting his work on Instagram, well into his fifties, that he saw himself as an artist and considered exhibiting his work.

“Technique is quite important to me. How you apply your paints; how rough, how smooth; that all adds to the emotional content of how people respond to your art. Sometimes it seems almost as though technique is seen as a craft that doesn’t deserve much emphasis; people often consider the concept behind an artwork more important than execution. But for me, the execution is very important. I think a big part of the process of developing a concept is actually in the making. In that process of drawing and redrawing an image, and refining it, more ideas come forward,” says painter and sculptor Andre Serfontein.

Although drawing, painting and sculpting has been a constant part of his life, 60-year-old Serfontein didn’t think of himself as an artist, nor did he try to pursue a career as an artist until recently. “Say about 2015? Yes, roundabout there, I started posting work on my Instagram account and found a bit of an audience,” he recalls.

“The heavy beard” by Andre Serfontein. Image: Supplied

A benign stalking of his Instagram account, scrolling back to his very first posts back in 2014, reveals at first a few generic images, casual snaps of sights and scenes: touristy travel pictures, weekend snaps of flowers at a nature reserve, and the obligatory picture of a cat. None seems to have elicited a remarkable amount of engagement, except the cat, naturally.

Then in November 2014, he begins posting his paintings, and the likes shoot up and the comments follow immediately: “Are your works available for purchase?” “Would love to buy some”, “I love this one, I want it”, and so on. Each time, he responds, letting the commentators know that he is not selling any of the artwork “at the moment”. 

Sketch by Andre Serfontein. Image: Supplied

Encouraged by the positive reception, he paints and posts more prolifically. The work is mainly made up of portraits and male nudes. Some are completed oil paintings and pencil sketches, some look like figurative studies sketched during a live drawing class. All reveal an artist so undeniably adept at figuration that a viewer might be intrigued to find that he is reluctant to call himself an artist. “I really enjoyed showing my work, and I started taking it more seriously. But I still didn’t really think of that as me becoming an artist,” he says.

Then in 2019, he got a call from artist Pierre Le Riche, then the newly appointed curator of the Gallery at Glen Carlou wine estate in the Western Cape. Le Riche offered him a solo exhibition, to show some of the work he had been posting on Instagram. “I was a little taken aback; I didn’t think I was ready for it. But then the more I thought about it, I saw how I could present the work, and I agreed to do it,” says Serfontein. 

And so, shortly after turning 57, he presented his first solo exhibition, and around the same time sold his small design business to pursue his art practice full-time.

Painting by Andre Serfontein. Image: Supplied
Painting by Andre Serfontein. Image: Supplied
Painting by Andre Serfontein. Image: Supplied

The work sold out, a streak that has continued on his Instagram account, where he says the work sells out regularly. Now, almost three years since that first solo exhibition, and another in 2020 at the Rust en Vrede wine estate’s gallery, the artist is busy in his studio, putting the last touches on a new body of work, soon to be shown from 27 April 2022, in Paris at Galerie du Passage, a retail gallery that specialises in 20th century antiques and contemporary art. As with Le Riche, the gallery owner, Pierre Passebon, saw his work on Instagram, and then became a collector of his art, and eventually invited Serfontein to exhibit.

“I’ve always drawn and painted, but back then a career in art wasn’t really an option; you had to go into something like graphic design in order to get a ‘proper job’, so I trained as a graphic designer. But I’ve always drawn and painted,” he says. For a while, he trained with celebrated artist and art teacher Michael Pettit. “He used to give lessons on a Thursday night, and for a few years I used to go to him. His skills are absolutely amazing. I learned quite a lot from him.” He also regularly attends live drawing classes every week. “It’s a very good exercise, it’s less controlled,” he says.

“If I go through a couple of days where, for some reason, I can’t find time to paint or draw because I’m busy with social engagements or I can’t get to my paints, I feel agitated and uncomfortable, and I need to get to my paintings. So, it’s definitely like a dopamine thing; there’s a feel-good element to it,” he explains.

His art pursuits have also rekindled an interest in sculpture that he had almost left behind. In the late 1990s, he got into ceramic sculpting which he did on and off for about 10 years. “And then about five years ago, I picked it up again and started sculpting from live models, which is quite a different kind of thing. I really enjoy it. I just finished work on two sculptures,” says Serfontein.

Sculptures by Andre Serfontein. Image: Supplied

By his own admission, the practice, refinement and enjoyment of the technique trump concept in his work. There aren’t necessarily overt nods to current popular discourse, as is often found in the work of artists looking to catch the attention of academically inclined curators and fashionable galleries. Serfontein loves beauty and he wants that reflected in the work: “For me it’s important that something looks good. I like to make it the most beautiful I possibly can.”

That said, he stresses that as much as he wants to create beauty, it is also very important to create something that is “interesting and hopefully fresh, which takes thought and consideration. I don’t like the idea of pretty bland paintings.”

Indeed, there are undeniable themes and perspectives in the work. There’s the fascination with natural scenes, sometimes drawn onto the figures he depicts or painted directly onto sculptures. The figures themselves are mostly nude men, sometimes alone, sometimes as couples in moments of tender intimacy, some bordering on erotica. 

“But the males aren’t necessarily typical male archetypes, they don’t fit into normative ideas of masculinity. I like to play with that ambiguity, the feminine in the male. And maybe erotica to a certain extent. I don’t have a particular sort of message that I want to give about masculinity or anything. I just enjoy playing around with what can be,” he says.

That sense of exploration is also evident in his use of distortion and exaggeration, often drawing attention to specific body parts. “I don’t approach the work thinking, ‘okay, I’m gonna give this person big lips because I think they’re very sensual’ or something like that, I don’t consciously think that person needs long legs. I start sketching and it’s almost like doodling, and the drawing develops; it’s a very subconscious thing. Sometimes it’s also affected by the mood of the image I’m working from, my interpretation of it; and the distortion helps to convey the mood. The paintings I make are also very much a fantasy, it’s not the real world at all. And the distortions and exaggerations contribute to that feeling of fantasy and otherworldliness.” DM/ML

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