The selection of John Pace’s oil portrait of his son Jack, entitled After the Match, as the winner of the Sanlam Private Investment (SPI) National Portrait Award in 2015 raised the eyebrows of local art cognoscenti and came as an emotionally overwhelming surprise to the artist himself. When Pace entered the limelight at the official award ceremony, it was as a complete unknown to most. His touching sincerity and absolute humility when he accepted the award is well documented on YouTube, as is the tribute that he immediately paid to all of the other contenders who had made fine submissions to the competition. Many of them were by full-time artists whom he acknowledged as possessing much more skill, training and experience than his admittedly ‘part-time’ self.
Shaped by a steady career in advertising and devoted to his family life, Pace remains exceptionally modest about his artistic training and experience. In comparison with many other full-time ‘fine’ artists heavy with university degrees, his training seems relatively thin. He completed one year of Fine Art study at the Durban Technical College in 1978 and then switched to a Diploma in Graphic Design, which he completed in 1981. It tends to be forgotten, however, that in the years running up to Pace’s tenure as a student, the Durban Technical College’s School of Art and Design was a truly inspiring place. Thanks to a then young, courageous and energetic staff, it was in many ways well ahead of many similar tertiary art-teaching institutions in South Africa at the time. In the 1970s it was, for example, a crucible of advanced thinking about the relationship of art and politics during the heady days of the anti-apartheid struggle. ‘Durban Tech’ produced many notable graduates who went on to become leaders in their respective fields; many of them well outside of the domain of the so-called ‘fine arts’.
Pace’s practical decision to commit himself to a full-time career in advertising – and a highly successful one at that – did not mean that he ever gave up on his fundamental love of drawing and painting. This he has continued to pursue on a ‘pleasure’ and ‘spare-time’ basis over the years that followed. His earlier efforts in monochromatic drawing and printmaking have specifically focused on animals. His approach to these subjects has resulted in a compelling form of ‘animal portraiture’ - highly detailed and technically accomplished portrayals of pigs, goats and chickens. These, especially in the case of his rendering of pigs, have a striking, almost anthropomorphic presence. These ‘animal portraits’, which evoke associations with Aesop’s Fables and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, seem to have served as a prelude to Pace’s engagement with real human subjects. These he chose to approach working on a larger scale in the medium of oil on canvas. The most obvious subjects readily to hand in this important shift were the members of his immediate family, and thus evolved his winning portrait After the Match.
It is important in Pace’s case to try to understand the dynamics that combined to assure his success with his painting After the Match. A question for many of the full-time and highly qualified artists who entered the competition would undoubtedly have been to ask how an advertising executive with apparently so little painting experience could have been a winner at all. An answer to that awkward question lays bare some of the outdated assumptions of ‘superiority’ that some professional artists seem prone to. ‘Fine art’, after all, is often conceived of by many as ‘high’ art, and advertising a form of ‘low’ art purely at the service of commerce; their aims being impossible to reconcile. Art History however, especially as far as the past century or so is concerned, shows us that such assumptions are wholly flawed and that these supposedly separate fields are by no means mutually exclusive. The truth is that they feed off and stimulate each other in surprising ways.
It is often said that ‘Art’ (with a capital ‘A’) is a stern and demanding mistress. This rather worn cliché could be extended to say also that that in its own ways advertising and media work is equally so. Its deadlines and requirements for effective and direct communication might seem at times wholly at odds with the more ‘cerebral’ modes of ‘fine art’, but in many ways their quest is in fact a mutual one; both seeking ‘effective’ and ‘affective’ forms of communication. A good and effective portrait painting is precisely just that. It must truly, effectively and primarily communicate at a very human level; technical aspects in this case assuming secondary consideration. It is this important notion of the ‘effective’ and ‘affective’ that forms so important a part of the judging process in the SPI National Portrait Award competitions. Judges are precluded from knowing the identities of the artists whose works are brought before them and have to reach a joint consensus on acceptance and one selected for the final award. The requirement that artists must also be entirely familiar with the real-life person that they are portraying assists in focusing attention on fundamentals. In the final analysis, as art critic Lucinda Jolly noted of the 2015 SPI award:
While there are premises on which the work is judged and the judges are knowledgeable practitioners, there is no right or wrong, just informed opinions. As such, the competition should be approached in the spirit of good sportsmanship.
After the Match, Pace’s winning entry, was pointedly described by Sanlam curator Stefan Hundt as being ‘skilfully traditional yet fresh in its approach to a ubiquitous subject that often graces the television screen and newspaper sports pages’. That Hundt put his finger on the fact that Pace’s image of his son Jack after a tough school rugby match is redolent of frequently seen South African media images is significant. In his dirt-flecked state after a robust game and just prior to a shower, Jack’s image strikes a delicate balance between idealism and realism. It seems a similar balance to that achieved, as Jolly has further observed, by ancient Roman sculptors who worked in bronze and marble. Portraiture was of deep significance to the Romans and was central to their familial, ancestral cults. The life-like ‘portrait bust’ which we now take so for granted, was their singular invention, tempered as it was by the idealising influences of Greek sculptural precedent. In these works, compelling realism sits alongside a tendency towards idealisation where youth becomes an embodiment of eternal verities. In Pace’s portrait of his son, the latter’s wide-eyed adolescence and smooth skin is elevated to almost heroic proportions by his use of a larger-than-life scale. This scale simultaneously emphasizes the sweat, the dirt on the flawless skin and the dishevelment – the realism - of the lived and dramatic moment. It is difficult not to be touched by this painting’s clear expression of paternal love; a factor which will gain in significance and meaning as its subject ages and time passes.
In many ways the paintings that Pace is showcasing on this exhibition continue to explore the thematic directions, notably that of sport, established by his award-winning painting. They also demonstrate his more serious intent to explore and come to terms with the technical challenges and possibilities posed by the medium of oil paint. His son Jack is again his subject, this time shown holding a dog, in a painting entitled Same Age. This time he employs a less frontal pose and similar dramatic chiaroscuro lighting effects to those so beloved of the Dutch Baroque painters of the 1600s. Here again, he attempts a similar balance between the realism and idealisation that one encounters, for example, in Johannes Vermeer’s definitive Girl with a Pearl Earring, although in Pace’s case both the scale and handling of paint, as well as his more sentimental intent, do not result in the same mellifluous and mysterious transitions and effects.
Champion Boy, which represents a young water polo player, is another paean to aspirant sporting prowess and youth, where the upward looking figure, caught in momentary inaction, is bathed in warm golden light. Dramatically set against a contrasting, colder blue sky, the figure demonstrates a deft, confident application of paint and handling of light effects that call to mind the impressionistic studies of youths enjoying outdoor life by the late 19th century painter Henry Scott Tuke.
Realism sans idealisation asserts itself more strongly is the case of the two paintings of sparring pugilists entitled Victory and Defeat, best viewed as a pendant pair or a diptych, which Pace undertook after taking photographic studies at an actual boxing match that he attended. The veracity here is not only of a material kind, but of an intensely passionate psychological kind. Again, one is reminded here of the realism of antique precedent and the famous bronze Boxer at Rest (330-50 BC) in Rome. Pig Farmer, Chicken Seller and Butcher Man are best defined as genre portraits in which the frontal poses and the scale of representation again tend to lift their subjects above the ordinary and endow them with an heroic aspect.
In the making of these paintings, as in others on this exhibition, the camera has been an obvious tool at Pace’s disposal. The relationship between photography and painting is a highly complex and vexing one with which every single practising painter since the mid-19th century has had to contend with, overcome and reach a satisfactory compromise. In the final analysis, it is the quality of the final painting itself and its conceptual integrity that counts. As Pace himself readily admits, his wholly unanticipated accolade as the winner of the 2015 SPI National Portrait Award now poses a number of personal challenges and professional questions. The door seems open to his adoption of a wholly new career as a painter. For a man now in his mid-fifties, the prospect of such a new career carries with it a degree of excitement. The late South African painter Robert Hodgins, after all, only really got into his stride as a full-time artist in his sixties. For Pace, any question that he may harbour of being labeled as an ‘amateur’ as opposed to a ‘professional’ is actually irrelevant in the wider scheme of things. As the famous American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated: ‘every artist was once an amateur’. One can only conclude with some forceful advice from the world of media and advertising itself by recalling that famously successful ad campaign for the shoe company Nike in the 1980s whose trademark became: ‘JUST DO IT’ !