HALLMARK on steroids; gorgeous, gaudy, sensuous, dreamlike, profound, derivative; imitative of nature, reverential to it; kitschy and compelling; saccharine and sexy: Looking at the art of Daniel du Plessis, words become a tangled, inadequate mess. Contemporary art is not supposed to be this beautiful, at least not judging by the prevailing fare found in most contemporary art galleries. A large, roughly 3' x 2' multi-media painting panel featuring a huge, meticulously drawn blue butterfly surrounded by morning glories, hummingbirds and a primal forest of flowers, berry bushes and one small crystalline heart gets right up in the face of the notion that contemporary art cannot be both gorgeous and profound.
On display at the Greenwood Chebithes Gallery in Laguna Beach, the blue-hued painting is brilliantly luminous and irresistible, one that draws passersby like moths to light, to use one of du Plessis' metaphors. The narrative contains a dark undercurrent contradicting the visual beauty: The hummingbirds impale themselves on each others beaks and a thorn bird, eager to get at its tempting berries, impales itself on the bush’s thorns. Fittingly, the piece is titled Everybody Knows after a Leonard Cohen song, exposing the dark side of desire, self-satisfaction and the myth of immortality. "Everybody knows that you love me baby, Everybody knows that you really do; Everybody knows that you've been faithful; give or take a night or two.”
Inside the gallery one finds an even larger (5' x 4') work that, according to gallerist Susan Greenwood, gets viewer conversations going in myriad directions: Set against a bright crimson background, it's dominated by two rose bush branches, but the flower and leaves that should be attached to them float in space. One of the thorny stalks has a wedding band dangling off its tip while the other supports a heart and a meticulously rendered butterfly. Two entwined wedding rings draw the eye to the bottom area filled with amorphous shapes found in some sort of primal forest.
Titled Don't Explain after the mournful Billie Holiday song, the piece alludes to the power and complexity of love and sex and, in spite of the vivid hues, it has a melancholy undertone. So much for superficial beauty — we've been taken in, and that is the crux of du Plessis' message: Look beyond the surface, question what’s real and what is not — find the underworld beneath paradise.
Visually, his entire body of work can be regarded as near perfection in two dimensions, fantasy gardens filled with exotic flora and fauna painted or collaged onto canvas and embedded in as many as 30 layers of clear, meticulously finished acrylic paint. Glossy and also imbued with inner luminosity, the paintings bring to mind the Getty's collection of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages that were designed to bring their owners closer to God. Du Plessis creates a spiritual alternate universe into which he asks viewers to immerse themselves, much like one would into the jazz and blues songs that he plays while he works and that he titles the results after.
Du Plessis's narratives are complex amalgams of reality and invention, often based on the ancient legends, spiritual lore and beliefs derived from the vast variety of cultures in his native South Africa. A strong belief in the sanctity of life and nature and love in all its permutations governs his daily life and informs his art. If he is not making art, he nurtures the thriving patio garden surrounding his Tustin home and studio.
"Nearly every one of my works contains flowers", he says. "They symbolize the passage of time, the ephemeral nature of beauty and, most of all, change." It's Just Gone, a depiction of a gnarly tree towering endlessly into a surreal starry sky, seems inspired by fairytales. Like the often darkly convoluted children's tales, it also hints at threatened environments and lost innocence.
Greenwood describes du Plessis’ work as akin to literature’s Magical Realism. "His paintings are visually seductive and rich in content and historical reference. They present a world where boundaries between reality and fantasy no longer exist," she says.
Du Plessis says that his sense of beauty was formed in the Veldts (an Afrikaans word for plains or fields) surrounding the mining town of his childhood where he picked bouquets out of shrub and brought them home with precocious flair. "I was probably meant to be the artist I am today, except that I did not know that then and neither did anyone else when I gave my mother fists-full of weeds,” he quipped. "I might say that I came to my calling on a rather circuitous route." That route includes getting a bachelors degree in languages from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and stints as a journalist, editor and public relations official. He grew up speaking Afrikaans (a derivative of Dutch) at home, learned English at school and Sesotho (an African language) . At university, he studied French, Portuguese and German and began taking art courses part-time.
Now his art is exhibited throughout the U.S. and South Africa. He also teaches at local colleges and universities. Does he impart his sense of beauty to new generations of students whose predecessors were consistently taught to dismiss it? He says that the enigmatic nature of his work invites intense discussion, something he equates with success. “We should be generous with all art,” he says. "Beautiful, representational art with a profound narrative is one whose time has come [again]. It we eliminate beauty from our sense of aesthetics we would have to eliminate about 90 percent of art."
Daniella Walsh, Riviera , May 2005, pp. 160, 162
Everybody knows, 2005
acrylic and oil on acrylic box
32 x 26 x 2 inches