Visual rhymes from the landscape of the mind

From Karoo farmboy to street artist to emerging young South Africa expressionist painter, Justin Southey says his love of nature and the outdoors led him to create the abstract landscapes now featuring in the country’s premier art galleries.

Southey, 32, who grew up on a cattle and sheep farm on the edges of the Gariep Dam, has his latest large format work up in the Everard Read Gallery’s summer exhibition – and he has cracked the international art scene with sales in the Middle East and Europe.

A life-changing visit to an exhibition in Stellenbosch three years ago activated a turnaround in Southey’s artistic exploits. “For the first time in my life I stood transfixed by a painting. It was a work by Cathy Layzell and after about 30 minutes I knew I had to go for it. I bought some large canvasses, some board and just started painting.”

His first expressive abstract works were produced while he was living amid the mountains of Franschhoek and was in a dark space emotionally.“I didn’t set out to paint a landscape, but it seemed to emerge from within me as if echoing the surrounding mountains as bastions of security and strength.”

A few months later Southey was satisfied he had a body of work that was original and worth showing.

“But at the same time I remained very intimidated and didn’t quite know who or where to take it,” says the artist, who describes the process at the time as “nerve-wracking”.

When two people gave him the same contact at the Everard Read, Southey took it as as a sign, “prayed a lot” and e-mailed the gallery. His work – which is very different from the strong landscape tradition that has come out of the Eastern Cape – struck a chord and was accepted for exhibition.

“As it turned out they happened to have a group show entitled Pastoral Abstraction with some amazing artists coming up in a few weeks’ time and the brief suited my works perfectly, so I snuck in.”

Since then he has exhibited in three Everard Read exhibitions, including the Cape Town’s gallery’s winter exhibition last year which featured top names like Beezy Bailey and Lucky Sibiya. And earlier this year Southey exhibited in the prestigious Circa gallery’s cubicle series.

Right now he’s back in the hot, dry northern reaches of the Eastern Cape working on a commission for the Everard Read’s upcoming botanical show.

After that? Actually, ditch that question – it’s a foolish proposition for an artist plunging into the random landscape of the unconscious. —