The Zen In Painting

John-Michael Metelerkamp
Lukho Witbooi, 2018

The world is at every moment the attained manifestation of God, as the eternally changing, eternally new vision of the person who suffers most, who is the most rent with contradictions, the one with the richest sense of protest, who knows how to save himself only in illusion. - Birth of a Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche



In his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury tells an aspiring writer, “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality does not destroy you.”


John-Michael Metelerkamp’s intoxicated approach to painting is encompassed in this quote. There is conscious terror behind the artist’s frenzied creations that are continuously being mined from his unconscious. The artist is known for creating a painting a day and has a recurring theme asking: What is reality? His search for meaning is like that of a child at play. It is also an embodiment of William James’s idea of one that is twice born.


“The process is one of redemption, not of mere reversion to natural health, and the sufferer, when saved, is saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before,” writes James.


Clinical psychology informs us that one of the main causes of depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain – a lack of serotonin – and that anti-depressants are supposed to assist in keeping existential crisis at bay. However, feeling good is another form of suffering when one knows the truth. Man is both god and animal. Possibly, what separates us from the beasts of the field is our unique ability to create. The Creative power when applied induces a feeling of intoxication and escape from what can seem to be an imprisoning world. Nietzsche called this intoxicating feeling Rausch. Arthur Schopenhauer sums the imprisoning world thusly.


“It then becomes clear and certain to him that what he knows is not a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world that surrounds him is only there as an idea, i.e, only in relation to something else, the consciousness, which is himself.”


The artist creates to step outside of himself. Metelerkamp eluded to this in an interview with Amy Gibbings: “I can be a very physical painter. I use my body to control the medium but I am totally unaware of it. So, it feels like an out of body experience. The painter, Philip Guston, said that sometimes it feels like a third hand is doing the work. I totally relate to this.”


Metelerkamp counters extreme self-consciousness in his paintings by not taking himself too seriously. His use of different styles embrace chaos and contradiction in both form and content. Metelerkamp paints to forget and to know. He digs deep in the garden of childhood where one embraced existence with joy and wonder. Metelerkamp also seeks to resign himself to a world of spirit­ – seeking something beyond himself and this world. His abstract approach stems from a mind that seeks to induce a feeling of chaotic unpredictability. To indulge a feeling that separates him from the laws of nature that seek to control one completely. His hand then brushes against canvas like a figure skater testing his limits on ice. But natural laws remain to an artist’s despair.For isn’t the intoxication of Rausch itself induced by productivity? Must not man – like all other beasts­­ – too work with purpose and order to escape his despair?


“I feel better when I work, and the world makes a bit more sense every time I connect with the process of painting and a finished work,” says Metelerkamp.


Metelerkamp has conceptualized his work around a group of people that live on the outskirts of Knysna, in a highway settlement called Nekkies, but these works can also be viewed as self-portraits.


“I feel I can identify with some of the characters I’ve seen there, not their circumstances, but the feeling of utter despair. There is a tavern along the highway that runs through Nekkies, where there are always plenty of people, dogs, cattle, and cars around. You feel a sense of uneasiness on that stretch of highway.”


This is perhaps why Metelerkamp’s obscure paintings are easy to relate to when one takes the time to look. I also make the argument that some of our finest art arises when one’s sense of reality has been burnt to ashes. One is then forced to question why? This is not an original idea, but something we see often in practice. A person descends into the pit and arises anew. They realise that they cannot go on as before. Or are unable to. Perhaps this descent and ascent is the reason we need Art.


“I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other.” - Ecclesiastes 18-19


Metelerkamp’s work assures us of his understanding of how delicate the constructs that separate him from the people that live on the outskirts of Knysna are. Also, how illusionary. For as Nietzsche further exclaims.


“It is art alone that can turn those thoughts of disgust at the horror or absurdity of existence into imaginary constructs, which permit living to continue.”

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