Visual language in the work of Jan van der Merwe

Full Name: 
Dr Jan Lodewyk Van Der Merwe

The aim of this research project is an investigation of my own body of artwork as it developed over four decades. Artists gradually establish their own unique visual language and oeuvre that distinguish their work. Although this evolvement does not necessarily occur within a linear manner, but rather, grows organically and instinctively, it is possible to discern and describe these characteristics.

As I decided to commence with an investigation of my own visual language, it was necessary and a conscious decision to create some distance in an effort to examine my work and the distinctive visual language that I employ. As this project occurred within an academic context, a research methodology had to be established. A practice-led and auto-ethnographic approach was followed. A whole body of research on these topics had been published to date and an overview of this extant research was first undertaken as groundwork before turning to an exploration of my own work.

The insights I gained into these methods were applied as an aid to establish a framework as well as a research model for the thesis and to gauge the validity of this research activity. Practice-led research entails that creative work is presented along with an accompanying written document, in this instance, a doctoral thesis.

The theoretical text is therefore one aspect of the two components submitted as requirement for the degree. The second component entails evidence and documentation of two comprehensive art exhibitions presented as case studies, accessible as appendices in the form of documents as well as DVDs of existing film footage and photographs.With regard to the theoretical component, the body of the thesis focusing on my own work was introduced by way of tracing and locating the distinct characteristics of my visual language over the span of my career.

However, it was also necessary to create a context for my work within a current and relevant discourse. Hence, theoretical enquiry as well as discussion regarding the work of other artists whose work bears relevance to mine had been included. Different aspects of my work were discussed separately: in the first instance concepts and conceptualisation were pinpointed where I identified five focus areas, summarised as memory, vulnerability and transience, the ordinary, ritual and gender.

Following on this discussion I outlined my work processes and use of materials and techniques. As the use of found material, especially mundane objects and corroded materials have been present throughout my career, these practices interlinked with crafting and transformation. Lastly, I discussed strategies of presentation as well as my evolvement from an artist interested in mixed media’, to an installation artist, employing digital media plus a variety of strategies to enable the viewer to experience’ the artwork. The later sections of the thesis deal with the two exhibitions presented as case studies, namely a retrospective exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum in 2006 (case study one) and a comprehensive exhibition at the Oliewenhuis Art Museum in 2013 (case study two).