Return to Articles


October 8 - 26, 2006 at Fullerton College Art Gallery, Orange County

by Danielle Walsh

"Don’t Explain,” 2005, acrylic and
mixed media on panel, 60 x 48”.

“Everybody Knows,” 2005, oil and
acrylic on plexiglas, 32 x 26 1/2”.

“In My Dreams, You Haunt Me,”
2005, oil on masonite, 6 x 6”.

“From the Inside, Out,” 2006, graphite
and carbon drawing, mixed media mat,
unique artist’s frame, 14 1/2 x 16 1/4”.

A brilliant blue butterfly surrounded by morning glories, hummingbirds, leaves, berries.  A lone heart suspended in a woodsy setting and bathed in a bluish aura.  This is not what one has come to expect in the realm of contemporary painting.  In trying to describe the multi-media and oil paintings by South Africa-born artist Daniel Du Plessis one quickly gravitates towards descriptive terms like gorgeous, gaudy, and, the K-word--kitschy.  Compelling, saccharine, sexy, dream-like, sensuous, dark, melancholy, reverential, cynical. . .they all prove less than adequate.  But you will be able to apply them at different moments and according to different moods.  Those who use the K-word will find that if they allow for some contemplation, this pejorative would woefully misjudge Du Plessis’ work.

These paintings are preternaturally beautiful, but they also delve into the secrets of the soul.  They are about the emotions that govern us.  Photo-realistically rendered images will attract romantics, while cynics will be inclined to keep their distance.  First and foremost, Du Plessis establishes that beauty is a trap: underneath the shiny surfaces, luminous coloration and meticulously drawn images there flows a dark narrative undercurrent.  Tiny hummingbirds are vicious predators that are spearing each other with long, sharp beaks.  A thornbird, greedy for a few tempting berries, impales itself on a thorny branch.  The background suggesting a deep abyss surrounded by a fiery halo, suggests the artist has not created paradise but something more like another circle of hell.

Thus, in a time when the pressure for art to “say something” is lessening and the decoratively pretty is gaining ground, Du Plessis makes paintings the (currently) old-fashioned way: He’s saying something--a lot actually--without spelling everything out.  There is plenty of room for personal interpretation.  Storylines consistently require close attention.  A blink might lead to missing a significant detail, such as the small snake that lurks in the background of what otherwise looks like paradise.  In his Alice in Wonderland meets the Romantics world nothing is ever what it seems.

For example, “Everybody Knows” (named after Leonard Cohen’s song addressing the pratfalls of desire and the myth of immortality) superficially attracts with its luminous red palette and superficial resemblance to a better Hallmark card.  But, his deft use of symbols unmasks love as a melancholy business.  Note the lone ring suspended from a thorn.

The title of the show is “The Disenchanted Forest,” and it contains signature work, multi-media paintings containing collage elements such as a glittery heart or other stickers one expects affixed to a teenager’s notebook, covered by luminous paint and several layers of resin.  The artist develops subtle textures and glimmers of light that add visual drama and depth and, at times, a leavening touch of whimsy.

Drawn in part from 17th century Dutch still-lifes, his visual repertoire sustains compelling narrative, while his technical acumen quickly establishes itself as a given.  Think of the spirit contained in European fairytales, morality plays or illuminated manuscripts transferred onto canvas or board and, like insects in amber, contained in layers of resin.  Lately, he has begun to make pure paintings, minus the collage elements, with his witty and consistently noir storytelling remaining a constant.

Du Plessis finds inspiration in music, particularly haunting ballads by Cohen, Billy Holiday, and other singers in tune with the ironies and absurdities of life.  “Don’t Explain, 2005” echoes Holiday’s blues over love gone awry.  Dominated by a red palette, it features a disembodied rose, wedding bands floating through space and one solitary gold ring hanging from a thorny branch.  Thorns, the defense bulwark of fragile roses, are big in his repertoire.  But, in his universe, they are often detached, menacing presences festooned with an object of desire such as a heart or a wedding band.  Nothing worthwhile comes without risk or sacrifice.

In addition Du Plessis has given some paintings a Baroque twist by constructing dark, seemingly ponderous frames around them.  The dark drama is thus bolstered by the shiny black finish covering delicate found or sculpted objects such as shells, tiny fish, an occasional gecko--anything that supports his narrative.

One of the most visually attractive paintings is “Here in the Dark (2006).”  The often-present thorns are outlined against a night sky filled with tiny stars that Du Plessis created by coating the canvas with glitter and enough layers of luminous paint and resin to make them look like celestial bodies.  In the foreground, a prehistoric lizard is crawling over the thorns toward a spider that has momentarily found refuge in a lovely rose.  The hunt is on and everyone knows how things will turn out.

Du Plessis may appropriately call this oeuvre “disenchanted” but there’s no doubt that he has created magic.