Artists We Love: Gabrielle Kruger

WORDS Amelia Brown IMAGES SMAC gallery

Cape Town artist Gabrielle Kruger has taken art off the canvas by turning acrylic paint into a textile for 3D construction, intricately layering, weaving and braiding it, and even fabricating garments. We caught up with her to find out more about her work, inspiration and what’s next.

How did you develop your style?

During a crit in the first year of my Masters degree at Michaelis [School of Fine Art], I was told by a lecturer that my work was too contained (at that stage I was producing small canvases of densely packed marbled oil paint). In my mind at the time, I got a glimpse of paint extending the canvas – literally sliding off and becoming its own thing. I started to experiment with acrylic paint (because of its elasticity) and discovered I could peel away dried paint and it could become a surface of its own. The idea that paint could exist as its own entity – without the support of a canvas or frame – excited me tremendously.

The end of my Masters culminated in my MFA showcase exhibition titled Ungrounding Landscape (2018). It explored the idea of a socially and materially constructed Anthropocene landscape by utilising a medium that embodies plastic. I filled an entire gallery with plant-like paint pieces, which I pinned to the wall in a process similar to gardening – it literally grew as I landscaped the different paint elements into a garden of sorts.

I also presented a series of Hanging Landscapes – sheets of acrylic paint referencing fields of greenery. They were an interrogation into traditional landscape painting in light of the contemporary understanding that nature has been re-articulated, even plasticised, and as a result made malleable through human action.

Since then I’ve been working closely with a paint manufacturer and producing my own mixture of acrylic paint, which I get in large buckets and mix to the desired colours. It’s such a versatile medium to play with – layering, weaving, braiding, folding, cutting and pleating it like it’s a fabric or skin. There are so many different ways of working with acrylic because it is just as malleable and elastic as plastics.

Overgrowth IX, 2018

Where do you turn for inspiration?

Travel. I’ve been very fortunate to have travelled overseas regularly with my mom, beginning when I was a year old and she could take me with her on a leash. We still travel together every year (we’ve swapped the leash for an app long ago!) and together we find our inspiration in galleries, museums, concept-, design-, antique- and bookstores.

My mother owns an eponymous homeware and textile brand, Isobel Sippel, which I think has been an unconscious source of inspiration. It’s certainly had a dominant influence on my way of working: a focus on the materiality and process. In her case, it’s the use of raw linens and dyes; in my case, the handling of paint.

Which artists do you admire?

The work that I mostly respond to with regards to my practice has a specific focus on materiality, repetition, and labour. Artists who have inspired me for a while now include El Anatsui, Nick Cave, Henrik Håkansson, Gregory Hodge, Uwe Kowski and Jacin Giordano.

A good overview of emerging and established artists who use particular media in a deliberate and innovative way is the Materiality exhibition curated by Andrea Lewis at the Iziko South African National Gallery, which runs until August. I am honoured to be included in this exhibition, along with so many of the local artists who I admire and take inspiration from, such as Athi-Patra Ruga, Bronwyn Katz, Wallen Mapondera, Igshaan Adams, Nicholas Hlobo, Jake Singer, Frances Goodman, Gerald Machona, Siwa Mgoboza and Ibrahim Mahama, to name a few.

Split I, 2020

Is there a South African artist or brand you would like to collaborate with?

Collaboration can be such an important catalyst for growth, whatever scale it happens in. It creates the opportunity to expand your way of thinking and to see things differently through someone else’s perspective.

I’m very excited to be planning a second collaborative exhibition with my dear friend and mentor Marlene Steyn at Lychee One Gallery, London, in June this year. We had our first collaborative exhibition, titled Garden Smoothie, at SMAC Gallery in December 2018. Marlene and I shared a studio space for four years and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn from her. The most important lesson was to play and experiment.

Where do you create your work and at what time of day you prefer to work?  

In January this year I moved from a tiny studio into a wonderfully spacious New York-style dream studio with high ceilings, large windows and aircon. It’s a mixed residential and commercial building in Salt River, in close proximity to shops and restaurants, and just a stone’s throw away from The Deckle Edge where I buy some of my art materials. I’ve been enjoying having so much space to work in. Suddenly my pieces have become larger, too.

One of the best aspects of being an artist is being able to choose your hours and schedule. I tend to run errands, attend meetings and do my admin in the mornings if I can, so that I can paint for the rest of the day. There’s something so gratifying about changing into my paint-smeared overalls, turning on a podcast and properly dirtying my hands with paint without being disturbed. The process of painting is very much about rhythm and flow, so the best days are those that I can fully emerge myself in the studio without interruptions.

Ribboned Painting, 2019

Do you have a treasured piece of art in your home?

I have a very small collection of artworks, mostly art-swaps with fellow artist friends, which I treasure: an orchid print on gold-leaf by Pierre Vermeulen; a small oil painting of two nudes by Mia Chaplin; one of Marlene Steyn’s figurative ceramic sculptures; a moody oil painting by Zarah Cassim; an ambidextrous drawing by Katherine Bull; a David Britz snake-like print; and some photographic prints by Mia Louw, Bert Pauw and Strauss Louw.

The most cherished paintings in our greater family collection are the earlier paintings by my dad, Martin Kruger, where he skilfully copied the masters. My favourite one is an impressive copy of Velazquez’s portrait of a poet Don Luis de Góngora (1622).

Can you tell us more about your residency at the Nirox Sculpture Park at the Cradle of Humankind in Joburg in 2019?

It was a soul-enriching experience. My days involved painting, strolling through the 20 hectare sculpture park and having a sundowner in the adjoining nature reserve while watching the zebras, wildebeest and giraffe grazing.

During my residency, I made a 6 m high weeping willow entirely out of acrylic paint (over 120 litres) with the purpose of placing it in the garden amongst all the other weeping willows to document as a photographic print. However, hail storms and lightning restricted us from installing the paint plant, and I left my tree at Nirox without getting my photograph.

Fortunately, Benji Liebmann, the founding director of Nirox, invited me back for a second residency so that I could get my photo. He suggested a collaboration with the National School of the Arts who wanted to perform an African adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in the park. Together we decided that my acrylic weeping willow and other hanging landscapes would work well as the scenography.

I insisted on making the costumes for the actors out of acrylic paint – before reading the script and realising what I’d got myself into. In less than three weeks (one of which was trying to get my paint through Freight Clearance), I found myself creating 22 wearable paintings. Only as I was watching the play myself did I realise the significance of it all: I had created a performance painting where the actors wearing the paint became the choreographers of composition.

I am so grateful that a seemingly random invitation to collaborate led me to develop a whole new aspect of my practice. An article on the collab by Ellen Agnew in ART AFRICA led to the Norval Foundation commissioning me to create another body of wearable paintings for a secret performance at the museum in August 2019. The theme was Gucci Garden of Eden and the pieces were worn and performed by students from the Cape Academy of Performing Arts.

What’s next for Gabrielle Kruger?   

I’ve been invited to participate in a group exhibition later this year at Galerie EIGEN+ART in Leipzig, Germany, known for launching the careers of artists such as Neo Rauch and David Schnell of the so-called New Leipzig School.

I’m currently working on a series where I’m bringing together my painting on canvas, sculptural painting and wearable painting performance pieces together with photography, a new medium for me. There’s so much yet to be explored in my practice; a notion that excites me tremendously.

Find Gabrielle on Instagram (@gabriellekruger) and follow SMAC (@smac_gallery) to stay up to date on upcoming exhibitions.