It was 1994, in Yeoville. Across from the Checkers in Raleigh road, there was an old railway coach that went as a diner. I was in there, having coffee with James Philips. It was noon. His hair was long and somewhat unkempt and he smelled of nicotine. He was excited. “Carl, this new shit we’re doing is radical, broer; horn arrangements, weird time signatures, complicated shit!” He was telling me about the new Lurchers’ cd they were recording. And he said ” I’ve got an amazing painting that we’re going to be putting on the cover of the cd. It’s by Walter Meyer. Have your heard of him? ” No I hadn’t.

The cd was called Sunny Skies, a caustic jab at the popular “Braaivleis, sunny skies and Chevrolet” adverts that had been aimed at the myopic white tribe in the 1980s. Meyer’s painting was of an eerily barren 70s East Rand-type house about to be swamped by the mother of all thunderstorms.

lurchers sunny skies

There was a rapport between James’ music and Walter’s painting . Here were two dissenting white men, each blessed with unique gifts in their own fields, calling the last round on the culture they grew up in. At Meyer’s first one man show in Joburg, at Ricky Burnett’s Newtown Gallery,  the Lurchers played live to mark the event. Not that Meyer needed the extra noise. His paintings – and there were a lot of them coming at you – were like a well- timed punch in the gut. This was the South African hinterland at the end of Apartheid : desolate small town houses, deserted main roads, broken farm buildings.  Things that we’d all seen were suddenly there in a way that was both familiar and utterly new. Meyer had a way of transforming the photographs he worked from. This was “realism,” but the brushwork – intense and absolutely assured – took the images well beyond the photograph. Here, in grungy downtown Joburg, was a major painter announcing his arrival.

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Goedemoed, Kalahari,1995. Oil on canvas 48 x 58cm

 

Innovators see what everyone else sees but doesn’t really notice. They figure out how to paint it. A glare of light on the Karoo ground at noon, the relentless sun casting deep shadow. Nondescript railway sidings in the veld. How a few scraggly palms planted in hope come to signal despair. These subjects were a far cry from the concerns of traditional landscape painters. Meyer looked unsparingly on the mark of man on the landscape and what he saw was definitely not a Chevrolet commercial. In Pierneef, nature is mostly nurturing and benign: Man succeeds against the odds and a feelgood order prevails. There is nostalgia in both Meyer and Pierneef, but in Meyer there is little consolation. Instead, we sense loss, alienation and the downright strangeness of the world.

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Jagersfontein, 1997, oil on canvas 84 x 100cm

Walter was a man for heat, arid vistas and big skies. He didn’t, like many of us, live in suburbia and make occasional forays into the platteland. He lived it. He also, to be sure, knew degrees of anguish – a man of few words, unable to keep off the booze, the hangover a constant companion. A mark of an artist must surely be his or her influence on their peers. Just as it is difficult to bypass Pierneef, the aspiring landscape painter should now address the work of Meyer. He was the kingpin in a moment of South African painting in which I would include such luminaries as Anton Karstel, Johan Louw, Kobus Kloppers and Clare Menck for starters. He will be missed. Hamba kahle, WM.

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