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Funny man Casper de Vries gets serious and opens up about his first solo art exhibition

2014-02-18 13:16

Johannesburg - It’s true… comedian Casper de Vries has decided to retire from one-man shows, and has discovered a whole new passion in a totally different genre. This Friday, his first solo exhibition of his paintings opens at Emperors Palace in Johannesburg.

It has been 27 years since Casper de Vries first wowed audiences at the Grahamstown Arts Festival with his very first one-man show back in the Eighties.

The Joburg-based entertainer’s last show, Casper Goes Khaki, toured SA and New Zealand  throughout last year, and without any fanfare Casper decided that this would be the last of the tours. Now the veteran funnyman has changed direction and hopes to make an impression in the art world. De Vries started painting two years ago and is having his first solo exhibition, called Art at the Palace, from 21 February at Emperor’s Palace. 

What inspired you to start painting?

I first picked up a paintbrush in 2011. A friend of mine, Michele Nigrini, is a very well respected South African artist. One day, while visiting her in the Free State town of Rosendal, I just had the sudden urge to paint, and drew a tree I saw outside her studio. What hooked me immediately was playing with colours. When I returned to Joburg, I went and bought materials  and started to paint. I haven't stopped since.  The vast colours of nature and the various ways one can apply them to one's canvas to create an image worth looking at, is fascinating for me. That inspires me.

Is this just a hobby you’re indulging until you do another one-man show, or do you see this as a career change?

I'd like to pursue painting as far as I can. Because I started painting from my guts, and have no formal training, I’m now slowly but surely getting acquainted with the more detailed history and styles of art and especially painting. If you told me four years ago I would be studying paintings, painters, and painting styles I would've thought you were crazy.

So won’t we ever see a Casper de Vries one-man show again? When did you make that decision? 

I haven’t quit show business, I’ve just stopped with the one-man shows for a while. I still have to make my own movie, maybe more than one, and want to continue with the television-sketch genre. I want to perform improv shows and do stage work with colleagues. I've also got a book to write, so there's a lot of stuff to do besides the one-man shows! And no, I can't fit these things in between my tours. I've tried and it's just impossible for me.

And what was the last show like? Any sentimental feelings? 

My very last show in South Africa was in Cape Town at the Artscape Opera House on 2 November last year. I had no emotional feelings whatsoever, I was just glad the show was over. But then, in the back of my mind I still had (and still have) the option of recording the actual LAST show in England on DVD later this year. When this project does come off the ground I suppose I’ll react more emotionally once it's in the can and over.

You’re turning 50 this year… does that milestone have anything to do with your decision?

My mom told me that both my dad and my brother changed direction in their careers when they reached 50. Maybe there is some little hereditary chip in our DNA. With me it certainly wasn’t conscious, I just realised I was getting tired of the genre and not as good as I wanted to be anymore.

Why Emperor’s Palace and not a gallery?

I have a special relationship with Emperor’s Palace, dating back to 2004. So I thought it would make logical sense to do my first art exhibition there at the venue (Theatre of Marcellus) where I used to do my shows. So in a way my theatrical side is handing over the "baton" to the artistic side in the same space. We’ll remove the chairs so the paintings will be where the audience used to sit as well as on stage and I will be at the exhibition every day to meet people who want to come and have a look.

Comedy is very much done for an audience. Are you finding that you paint for an audience too, or is it more for yourself? And if it started for yourself, at what point did you want to show it off to the world by way of an exhibition? 

I started painting just for myself. It was a kind of therapy. I went with my guts and natural instincts and painted things I felt the urge to paint. I was lucky that people like Michele saw it first and thought it was very promising. If they didn't, I would most probably have continued painting for myself only. As I continued to paint, many in my "intimate circle" saw the results and their spontaneous reactions gave me the courage to approach a curator and organise an exhibition.

What was the first painting that you made? What do you think of it now looking back at it? 

The first painting was of a tree in Rosendal. In the middle of the tree there was an opening in between the leaves allowing rays of sun to shine through. But it also looked like a juicy fruit. I liked that "double vision" and called the painting Genesis. I still think it's very cool; it hangs in my house. 

What inspires you artistically? Is it different for painting than it is for comedy?

I am sure that Michele Nigrini's work inspired me, and being around her paintings for many years had a profound effect on me wanting to paint. Just as with comedy I draw inspiration from very good artists but I immediately try to make it my own. And I focus on never copying someone else's work, unless it's an homage of some sort.

How would you describe your style as a painter?

For now it varies widely – some of what I do is realistic, some is totally abstract. But there is definitely a distinct style that you can start to recognise already and that I'm excited about.

What do you enjoy painting most, and do you have a favourite work in your collection?

At the moment I paint things I love and things that fascinate me. Like my mother or a fossil, if you pardon the two examples! So I've painted my poor dogs ad nauseam and also some members of my extended family. I'm sure the ancestor whose artistic DNA was passed down to me lived thousands of years ago because I have a total fascination with rock art and cave painting. One of my favourite pieces so far is based on rock art.

You’re a verbal storyteller and now your paintings have to tell the stories while you stand back and let people interpret them… do you find that difficult? Do you want to explain the story behind a painting?

I find that when one builds "messages" or deeper meanings into paintings (especially with abstract work) that is just a starting point. I actively aim to trigger the viewer's imagination and let him then get lost in whatever world my painting got him into. Sometimes you can help the viewer with the title of the piece. But the miraculous thing of art and painting is that you can get the viewer to interpret things after you have just given him an artistic poke in the right direction.

What has been the biggest learning curve for you in this process and what about it have you enjoyed most?

The biggest challenge for me is not to become self-conscious in what I'm doing. I say that because I started painting from nothing and having no background or academic knowledge. I don't want those things to hamper me in the natural process of painting. But I do study the theory and history of art and artists so that I am up-to-date with those facts. So far the biggest challenge for me is to know when a painting is finished because you can tinker with it for 20 years. I’m learning to hear that voice which tells you, "that’s it, finished". 

What would you like to achieve with your painting; any specific objectives? 

I’d love to be commissioned to do exhibitions because then one's creativity can really go ballistic. But that is still a far way to go. So my first humble objective is to prove that I am worth my artistic salt.

Your outspokenness about homosexuality and religion has created a lot of controversy in recent years and you have said that you don’t mind losing narrowminded fans who object. Can we expect the same kind of controversy in your painting? Any nudes, for instance? 

I have thought about controversial themes, but that is for the future. I like to push the envelope so let's see when that starts to happen. It’s all to do with confidence so once I've built up enough I’ll branch out and also try new things, and controversial topics. 

What message do you hope to convey to your audience with your paintings?

There are many ideas and goals and so on behind and inside a painting. Sometimes it's just a straightforward painting of a flower whose aim is to make you feel better or perk you up. There is no wrong or right interpretation and that's what I love about it! If you lie on your back and look up at the clouds you can see what you want to see: an elephant, a dragon or even a fly in a ninja costume. 

If I can’t make it to the exhibition, where can I see your work?

After the exhibition all the exhibition pieces as well as other work will be available for viewing and/or purchase in an online gallery at I am doing a second exhibition, of different paintings, in Cape Town in April, and later in the year I will do another in Bloemfontein. 

Art @ the Palace will run at Theatre of Marcellus, Emperors Palace, from 21 to 26 February 2014 and will be open daily between 3pm and 9pm. De Vries will be in attendance daily. 

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