Sitting drinking tea in his August House studio, Andrew Kayser says that he finds “the idea of the rebel artist behaving badly is an out-dated myth. If artists want to make it these days their practice has to become extremely professional.”
WORDS: TYMON SMITH
PHOTOGRAPHY: WARREN VAN RENSBURG
It’s something the 42-year-old can begin to say with conviction after years of battling with addiction to drugs and alcohol, which saw his career take off a lot later than many of his peers.
Born in East London, the son of a Dutch doctor, Kayser remembers that while his hometown was, “a very nice little town to grow up in,” there wasn’t much “information in the way of arts or anything like that. I was always good at drawing right from a very young age so you know, when you’re sort of 17, 18 years old and you’re deciding on a career path, it’s quite different to how you might make that kind of decision in retrospect.” Kayser first went to Grahamstown to study fine art but was kicked out of Rhodes within the first few months of his first year. He came back to East London and tried again at PE Technicon and then when he was 21, “and maybe not as stupid,” he made use of his Dutch passport to travel to Holland where he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.
For anyone who’s ever visited the centre of Dutch bureaucracy you’ll know it’s hardly the world’s most exciting city and while Kayser now admits that his, “feelings towards the Hague were always a little bit ambivalent,” on the bright side, “Holland’s such a small country that you just jump on the train and in fifteen minutes you’re in Utrecht; in half an hour you’re in Amsterdam so overall I thoroughly enjoyed my experience over there.” There was also the advantage of having access to the world’s art treasures, “on your doorstep, all these museums, what you’re studying, what you’re interested in, you can go and see and so that was an amazing experience.”
While back in South Africa artists were coming to terms with the changing political challenges of the post-apartheid era, in The Hague, Kayser was being schooled in a “more conceptual approach, not layered with the political undertones that we have here so that had a big influence on me and to be honest at the time it was almost a bit of a relief to be making art in a context without those considerations.”
After finishing his studies, Kayser found it difficult to promote himself in the art world because he, “wasn’t a naturally confident person so I sort of drifted around and participated where I could for a couple of years and came back to South Africa more by chance than anything else.” Back home he found work as a freelance motion graphics designer but his addictions continued to plague him into his 30s when his friends and family staged an intervention, which sent him to rehab for three months, on the beginning of a long road to sobriety. Although he had drifted from any serious continuation of his art practice, Kayser says that he “always continued to draw and I would try every now and then to set up a studio but I never really managed to get anything going properly.”
After a year living back with his mother in East London, which he now sees as a particularly low point, Kayser returned to Johannesburg determined to finally make a go of it but three months later “things had gotten to that stage where you find yourself curled up on your bed, sobbing hysterically. I had another good artist friend who also didn’t drink and one morning I went to talk to him and I’m not sure how but finally after all those years of trying, something just kicked into place and I woke up the next day and made the decision to stop drinking. That was the last of it and that was just over four-and-a-half years ago.”
Kayser moved into a space at End Street Studios, sharing ideas and feeding off the experience of working with fellow artists, before his work caught the eye of Kalashnikovv Gallery, who put him in group shows, showed his work at art fairs and finally gave him a solo show last year. His work has sold well and for an artist with a long gap in his CV, Kayser was surprised but also feels that, “there’s definitely pressure when work sells and you can’t help but think to yourself, “well do I need to retain those elements if I’m hoping to sell more work?” So those pressures definitely come into play but I’ve found that as soon as I decide to produce work in that way I can feel when that sort of point has reached its cache and it starts to feel contrived and forced.”
Kayser’s previous work has seen him combine painting and mixed media in dark, ambiguously layered works but today he’s surrounded by large canvases onto which are pinned figures cut out from felt and other materials, the result of a recent discovery that’s seen him putting away his acrylic and oil paints. Kayser acknowledges that while there was a consistency to his paintings, “where you could identify that these were my works,” he feels that “as a painter I never settled on a particular style and I was never all that in love with the medium of painting and I was always looking for new techniques.” With the move to working with material, he’s managed to overcome a particular problem in that, “what always frustrated me about painting was that when I wanted to get large, black opaque masses I’d have to work them over and over and now I could just cut them out and go boom, there we go.”
With a year of new shows at Kalashnikovv and the upcoming Cape Town, Turbine and Johannesburg Art Fairs on his schedule, there’s plenty of work to be made and Kayser revels under pressure believing “it really helps because when the pressure kicks in it’s not like I can sit around and fiddle, I just have to do something and that’s often when my best work comes out.”
As to whether or not he’d believe anything as cheesy as the idea that art saved his life, Kayser’s not entirely convinced, but looking back he admits that he was always drawing, even in his darkest periods and now sees that, “one of the hardest parts of drinking is that people say you have to have plans or dreams or whatever for the future but in the darker periods of drinking you could never make those kind of plans because you could never envision yourself five years from now. It’s like climbing up some stairs and then tumbling all the way back to the bottom again and so having this practice in my life has provided direction and some sense of purpose. I’m not saying it has to be purpose on a grander scale but it’s helped me to live my life on a daily basis and I do hope that the works provide meaning to other people too.”
INFO: INSTAGRAM: @andrewkayser