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Keith Alexander’s dreamscape paintings to go on auction

The uncanny melancholy of Keith Alexander’s dreamscape paintings

For several surrealist artists, the uncanny was a significant theme in their work – for the South African artist Keith Alexander it is a seminal motif that weaves through much of his oeuvre. South Africa’s leading auction house Strauss & Co is pleased to offer three of Alexander’s works in its upcoming live sale in Johannesburg. The auction takes place from May 15 to 17, and the works form part of an evening session entirely devoted to surrealism and its influence on South African art and artists.

At first glance, the viewer might see an ordinary object in his artworks – a house, a boulder, or a street light. But as the viewer spends more time with the painting, they become aware of an ominous presence – something that they did not comprehend with their first encounter but speaks to something deeper and more visceral on a subconscious level.

An eerie aesthetic

The European and American surrealists took their cues from metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico’s enigmatic, airless and supernaturally lit compositions, Surrealists often manipulated scale, induced an atmosphere of angst, guilt, or bemusement, and forced everyday objects into unfamiliar contexts. Alexander did his honors thesis on surrealism, and it’s the same techniques and themes of this art movement that we see in his paintings by him. They have a similar eerie aesthetic to that of French surrealist artist Rene Magritte, and Spanish artist Salvador Dali.

“In a short period of time, Alexander established himself as one of South Africa’s foremost surrealists,” said Strauss & Co’s head curator and art specialist, Wilhelm van Rensburg.

When it comes to landscapes Alexander was especially deft – like his precursors Magritte and Dali he executed his work in a highly finished, hyperrealistic style – shimmering with a sense of disquiet and melancholy. “The artist created an impressive body of work of over 500 paintings in his lifetime, in a short career of 25 years,” said Van Rensburg.

“His art journey started when he registered for a degree in fine arts at the University of Natal, but the foundation for his themes of decay and ruin was laid much earlier. Alexander was born in 1946 in then Rhodesia, but his parents sent him to boarding school in London, where the damage sustained during wartime bombing raids still lingered. He experienced the aftermath of the Second World War first-hand – and the theme of rubble and ruined masonry is a recurring motif in his artworks of him. Alexander met his wife from him, gallerist and art collector Elizabeth White, at one of his exhibitions from him, where she purchased one of his works from him.

desert dreams

White encouraged and supported him throughout his art career – they traveled extensively through Africa, but their Namibian honeymoon in 1980 would set the tone for much of his work. It was there that he fell in love with the desert. The stark, stripped and hauntingly beautiful scenes of the Namib desert, the crumbling, abandoned mining town of Kolmanskop and shipwrecks like the Eduard Bohlen that dotted the beaches inspired Alexander to create a visual language of his own. Few artists have captured the haunted isolation of deserted towns of the Namib desert more dramatically than Alexander.

His images of Kolmanskop are an allegory for South Africa’s own decaying, crumbling regime in the 1980s – they are stark reminders of former affluent, luxurious times but now lay abandoned, reclaimed by the relentless shifting dunes of the Namib. “There’s a sadness in my paintings, I use Namibia as a medium for the colonial collapse, the transition, as in South Africa today, from the old order to the new. The physical language is so aggressive and hostile. At the end of it all, though, Africa will be there forever. Long after all the schemes and dreams have passed, it remains the ultimate winner,” he said in a previous interview.

The desert also features prominently in three of the paintings in the May sale. In the Scramble for Africa (est. R400,000 – R600,000) the viewer is confronted with the remains of an ancient Roman arch. In the center of this desolate scene, a ship chugs towards the viewer. What adds to the sense of uncanniness is a highly polished tile floor, which reflects the ship. There is an impending sense of doom and destruction – of inevitable disaster.

In an interview, Alexander explained that a ship is much more part of its origin than its destination. “A ship is almost like a living being, which can move very far from its natural environment, yet it remains intact and self-contained. Marooned in a foreign environment, it is almost a perfect allegory of colonialism.”

Last Light (R600 000 – R800 000) has a sense of an ending – it features what looks like the façade of a European railway station and a dusty road, lined by ornate street lamps. Upon his return to southern Africa, Alexander became increasingly aware of the contradictions inherent in his deeply colonial and political fraught upbringing, another important theme that he would later manifest in artworks like these.

Last Light aligns with Alexander’s central theme of isolation and decay – and juxtaposes the real with the imagined. The crepuscular light invokes a sense of finality – of lost times and crumbling empires, and underlines the futility of it all.

For more info on the sale, view 3D galleries and e-catalogues, visit www.straussart.co.za.

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