By JONATHAN GOODMAN, June 2020
Just under thirty, Stian Deetlefs comes from South Africa. His paintings and sculptures, regularly figurative, seem--at least to a New York writer--to be equally influenced by abstract-expressionist brushwork and a sympathetic understanding of outsider art. Deetlefs has only been working for a very short time: in the last three years. But already, as evidenced in this fine online show, we see an artist of unusual expressiveness, in which someone like Basquiat hovers over a body of work notable for its volatility. The kind of art Deetlefs makes, despite the great distance between David Krut Projects, the gallery in Johannesburg that backs the artist (although it also maintains a New York space) and the sophistication of New York City, indicates that expressionism can survive its extended historical passage and thrive despite different backgrounds. If we look at the art, there is nothing geographically specific to Deetlefs’ origins; more particularly, his pieces belong to an international style influenced by relatively recent American art history. As a result, the artist devotes himself to impactful feeling--usually the best way to engage the viewer.
In the 2018 painting, called The Anatomy of the Working Class, Deetlefs works with enamel paint on steel. It is an anatomic presentation of a skeleton, rendered in white, black, and gray. The image is ghastly: a black face with white eyes and a jagged row of white teeth; the chest is mostly black, while the limbs and feets are a mixture of black and white. Deetlefs, whose upbringing was impoverished, shows a sympathy for workers (at a young age, he took jobs in factories to make money), even should that sympathy be dark. The painting is grim but vehement in energy. Another 2018 painting, called Woman 01--of a woman in white against a dark background, with an unstable look in her small eyes as she smokes a cigarette. The figure wears a helmet of black-and-white hair, demonstrating a near archetypal presence: the female with sinister intentions. The portrait presents a coarse, untrammeled energy that can easily be seen as aggressive, close to unhinged.
A 2019 painting on burnt wood, named A Portrait of a Crane Operator That Shows His Fears and Responsibilities (2019), presents a highly abstract-expressionistically painted face, black on the left and yellow-gold on the right, with a skein of white lines overlapping the neck. Perhaps this is an exercise in the rendering of psychological alienation, unease. It is a beautifully painted work of art, but the emotions are tangled, like the style of the painting. Deetlefs is giving his audience a composite of free-handed paint application that results in genuine emotional intensity. Whether this is the artist’s sensibility, or his solidarity with the feelings of a worker, is hard to tell. Untitled Face (2019) consists of a slightly comic head and countenance, framed by red and a bit of yellow. The neck and torso of the figure, in the lower third of the composition, are white. The painting has been so roughly brought about as to take on an abstract countenance, which would deliberately undermine its figurative aspect. This happens a lot in Dieleff’s art.
Deetlef’s sculpture is equally accomplished. The clay portrait, Portrait of a Woman (2019), also comes close to abstraction, although there is a recognizable face. Slabs and bits and pieces of clay overlap each other, offering us a clear view of the artist’s process. In the 2020 work called Self-Portrait, the bust is made of tan-colored concrete and shards of green glass for hair, as well as a black, ringed ceramic shape for the artist’s ear. The eyes and nose suggest a satyr figure--an accurate portrait of the artist as a young man. Key to all these works is a powerfully youthful energy, in which expression is mediated by a style and materials as rough as the feelings they depict. This is the work of a young artist, whose sincerity is directly evident and whose improvisational process matches the vivid energies of his emotional life. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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