Hentie van der Merwe: graph
Hentie van der Merwe at Galerie Gabriele Rivet.
By Amanda Coulson.
In: art on paper. January - February 05.

In South African artist Hentie van der Merwe’s second solo show in Germany, entitled “Graph” (all works 2004), he uses the formal element of the grid to suggest the interaction between differing views of the same reality. His large-format charcoal and pencil drawings on paper are based on images that he culled from various archives (such as the National Picture Archive in Namibia), newspapers, or photos taken by his father during the 1960s. From a distance, these drawings appear to be Photo- Realist, but up close one sees that the artist has left purposefully visible the lines used to square off the paper, a hint that he is after more than simple replication.
While some drawings seem harmless (such as Luc, which portrays a young gawky boy sitting in a wooden wing-backed armchair), others, featuring such images as a dead girl being washed or a severed hand, point to the cruel reality in which even Luc lives.
The next room was wallpapered with black-and-white checkered Vichy fabric, the graphic nature of which created a feeling of disorientation. One approached the pure white paper sheets mounted on the cloth in the hope of some optical relief, but none was to be found: the delicate ink and pencil line drawings offered no shading or volume; the insistence of black on white, lines against lines, was overwhelming.
Some were studies for the larger drawings —such as the screaming head of field operation or the close-up of a harmlesslooking old white woman in member of a war commission, and so are easier to interpret.
Others, such as the flight, which portrays a mass of refugees, at first seemed to be mere abstract patterning. The intense visual confusion and the unobtrusive rendition of the bleak subject matter are reinforced by the background fabric’s moniker, Vichy, which bears the stench of collaboration, suggesting how governments try to distract the public and camouflage the horrors with which they are involved.
Downstairs, the drawings in pencil on graph paper were completely abstract. Van der Merwe selected articles from international newspapers—such as “No European money for Palestinian terror, 12.08.04” or “Abu Ghraib, 11.08.04”—which he translated, using a dictionary, from the published language into his own. Noting down the pages for each word, he developed a series of numbers that he used as co-ordinates to create a graph that acted as the jumbled “visual translation” of the text. In this manner, van der Merwe gives clear visual expression to the persistent political and historical inclination of turning clearly reported fact into a perplexing muddle.