Deviled eggs, a dead mosquito, the tight bud of a peony, or toes in a sandal: Ina van Zyl makes small, still-life-like paintings of things we normally take for granted. That is to say, until Van Zyl paints them and they suddenly demand our full attention. Subtly rendered on the canvas as images, one senses that they are not only about beauty, or ugliness, but also about the world that lies behind them. Each work, including her portraits and self-portraits, is an attempt to grasp that world.
Van Zyl (Ceres, South Africa, 1971) grew up in South Africa, studied visual art at the University of Stellenbosch and took a special interest in drawing comic strips. During the mid 1990s she came to the Netherlands in order to immerse herself in painting at De Ateliers. Rather than creating narrative scenes, like the comics, Van Zyl soon began to focus on individual objects and zoomed in on them. These have an autonomous presence on the canvas, appear 'larger than life' and are succinctly framed, completely detached from their contexts.
Van Zyl's fascination with a subject – be it a seemingly trivial everyday object, a landscape or a portrait – often starts with the contradictory feelings that it might trigger. She is drawn, for instance, to a combination of strength and vulnerability in a budding flower, or to the intense black of a ripe plum about to burst. Seductive works, painted in a concentrated and precise manner. But as viewers we detect a certain friction that symbolizes something larger. Van Zyl charges every painting with emotions and memories that can evoke both a universal feeling as well as a sense of unease and longing. For that reason she often provides hints in her titles. Mort, for instance, for the dead mosquito: the fragile insignificance of the insect acquires an overwhelming grandeur. And Little Orgasm, for the sensually rendered small carnation that inevitably gives rise to associations with sexuality and puberty.
Sometimes history is already partially rooted in the image. Aside from being a beautiful flower, a protea is also the national flower of South Africa. In Proteus Erectus (2010) Van Zyl paints it standing proudly upright, looking harsh and even a bit aggressive, thus bringing to mind male genitalia which – like female genitalia – recur frequently throughout her work. But when it hangs downward on a branch as in Skaamrosie Teen Skemer (2009) shame and discomfort seem to be an underlying motive. Then South Africa's national flower becomes also a flower that witnessed apartheid and racism in that country.
Van Zyl hardly produces any narrative strips nowadays, and yet each painting suggests an entire history in a single image. In the same way that a good listener needs only a single word. Strength and vulnerability, life and death, or longing and fear...these often go hand in hand in Van Zyl's work. Each of her works seems to be an attempt to explore those contrasting emotions. The same can be said about her (self-)portraits. Here it is not only the outward appearance that counts; Van Zyl is also guided by issues such as 'who the person is' and 'who I am in relation to the other'. In portraits such as Anton (2021) she makes a depicted friend come close in a confrontational way. He nearly bursts off the canvas. In this intriguing portrait the man is looking both into the distance and gazing inwardly. But in the process of painting Van Zyl also reduces him to paint on the canvas. She detaches herself from the emotion and develops a likeness on the basis of a divergent, contrasting but balanced palette in hues of purple, green, blue and orange, causing the viewer to revel in its abstraction. A personal portrait can thus be abstract at the same time, and something as simple as a deviled egg suddenly creates an impression of weight. This is the leitmotif in Van Zyl's succinct as well as enigmatic oeuvre.
text: Esther Darley
translation: Beth O'Brien