Simchowitz is pleased to present Deflector Ray, the first solo show of the South African artist Jan-Henri Booyens (b.1980) in Los Angeles. The title comes from Star Trek, suggesting an inherent contradiction—a type of force field that can be used to absorb and protect, while at the same time, shooting outward to destroy and kill. It’s a fitting notion for an artist whose practice can be defined by contrast, discord and the unexpected.
Based in Cape Town, Booyens’ medium-to-large scale paintings have often drawn comparisons to the work of early-to-late Modernists, not only because of his interest in Surrealist automatism, but because they exemplify the sometimes brutal, sometimes lyrical side of action painting—with odd collisions of materials, tonalites and movements. Indeed, his work is nothing if not a celebration of the spontaneous, full of charge and flow.
But in truth, his practice is clearly the product of contemporary times. Hip-Hop, street culture, digital technologies and African Afrocentrism are all cogent factors in his aesthetic, as well as the constant inspiration he gets from outright experimentation. One can hear a faint echo of Italian Futurism who famously considered industrial life a thing of beauty, where car engines, machines, telephones and electricity provided an ongoing symphony. The parallel today, at least for Booyens, is the celebration of glitches, application errors, system crashes, data moshing and the like. “I’m really interested in the error,” he says, “the beauty of the error, and the beauty of the mistake. Those are really important to me.”
To that end, Booyens has been “destroying images” as he says, for the past 15 years. He might, for example, pull an image from the web and then feed it into a program that allows him to transform it into code or sound. (A jpeg might be translated into ASCII for example, or WAV). Then, after cutting and pasting, editing and deleting, he exports it back out as an image file (jpeg or gif) to create strange, colorful abstractions that are full of glitches and corrupted pixels. Few if any, serve as models for paintings, but rather inspirations. They’re “successful failures,” he explains. “Or maybe a kind of psychic autism—a release that somehow gets fucked up in the process of being made.”
Similarly, he invites chance collisions to occur during the process of painting. He generally works with unprimed canvas, because, as he says, he enjoys the ways in which different pigments absorb into the surface at different rates and transparency. He will also mix oil paint with different types of spray paint, or add cold wax to build up the surface, which he may or may not scrape away. He will also weave in brush strokes, hard-edged lines, and calligraphic marks. He has even turned to reflective elements, such as glitter or metallic dust, which have never been popular with most artists. But such collisions often coalesce into something more lyrical and rhythmic, something that keeps us looking over and over. Lisa Le Feuvre’s exploration of failure seems fitting here, “We can sometimes only become truly attentive,” she writes, “when something is indeed wrong.”
Likewise, he enjoys throwing people off track with his titles as well, which often suggest specific intentions or inspirations (“Cy Twombly Broke My Heart” or “Joseph Beuys Was a Liar”). But as Booyens says, they only come after the work is completed, or perhaps, while they’re being made. Some might riff on a random song lyric or nursey rhyme, while others might play with common street slang. (“Onder in die Vlei, Het Hy Haar Siektes” translates from Afrikaans to Down in the valley he gets all of her diseases and “Hos …. Indota!” translates from Sabela, a language developed in prison, to something like ‘hello… your highness,’ but ‘your highness’, or indota, means ‘a person with a high ranking’, where the higher the prison sentence, the higher the ranking)
If Africa plays a role in his work, Booyens admits to being aware of his country’s well documented contribution to the birth of European abstraction in the 1920s, but as he confesses, he also had to reconcile his relationship to his country’s long tradition of politicizing artworks. “I turned to abstraction partly as a reaction to all that,” he recalls. “I’ve always been against narrative art and more interested in works that are more open-ended.”
Nevertheless, South Africa has in fact inspired a few epiphanies. One for example happened during what is known as “loadshedding,” which is a practice of widespread blackouts conducted by Eskom, the country’s main energy company, to avoid the collapse of the grid. That meant the lights would go off every three hours, which eventually inspired Booyens, out of frustration, to work with glow-in-the-dark paint. “Now I really like the idea that a collector might have a work in his or her home, and at some point, after they turn off the lights, they discover that they have an entirely different painting.”
Born in Johannesburg in 1980, Jan-Henri Booyens lives and works in Cape Town. He studied at the Durban Institute of Technology and the Gerrit Rietveld Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, and has taught in the Visual Arts Department at the University of Stellenbosch. Booyens was one- third of the infamous artist collective Avant Car Guard and his work is part of numerous collections, including the Cartier
Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. His solo exhibitions include ‘WHITEOUT’ (2015) at Blank Projects and ‘Some Kind of Nature’ (2014). “Deflector Ray” is his first solo show in the U.S.
Jan-Henri Booyens’ work is often described in terms of a struggle between the representational and abstract, the rational and chaotic. His affinity and critical engagement with Modernism is coupled with his relationship to the South African landscape, both physical and social, manifesting in an intuitive, texture-rich layering of oil paint on canvas and a bold use of colour andline. Booyens incorporates his experimentation with street art, photography, and digital ‘Glitch Art’ and GIFs into his canvasses, as seen in his solo presentations at blank projects, ‘WHITEOUT’ (2015) and ‘Some Kind of Nature’ (2014). He was one-third of the iartist collective Avant Car Guard, who employed paint, photography and sculpture to offer a satirical critique of South Africa’s art world.