Kurt Pio’s background story reads like it might be made into a broadway musical. It’s certainly an integral part of his work. About twelve years ago, Kurt graduated as an interior designer. He worked in this field for about six months, found that it did not make him happy, and quit. Moved back with his mother, started painting from her garage. When asked by a journalist, Kurt says he would recommend this to anyone who feels miserable in what they do. If, that is, they have a plan, a focus, something they believe in and want to work for. American – or, in this case, South-African – dream stories have grown out of a lesser determination. “You could be a motivational speaker on TED,” the journalist half-jokingly replied. And though I haven’t quite yet printed out his quotes and pasted them on my mirror, it’s hard not to get affected by his powerful, sincere ideas.
The body of work that springs from this determination is wide-ranging and eclectic, unified on the one hand by Pio’s love of travel, on the other by the unique perspective that his travels offer him on his homeland and especially his beloved Cape Town. Right now, Lifeisart Gallery and Graanmarkt 13 are exhibiting three series from Pio’s more-than-decade long career in Antwerp.
These elegant botanical studies made Pio’s name in South-Africa. Originally painted at a time when, as the artist himself says, people were ready to fall in love with their country again, the aloe vera was the prime example of the indigenous plants that all South Africans grew up with. As such the aloe transcends the differences and disputes that mark human relations in South Africa. It was, and remains, a hopeful symbol of a more egalitarian future.
In these paintings the plants are plucked from their natural surroundings, floating in a peacefully white no man’s land. The figure begins in a dense, clustered fashion, becoming less controlled as the stem of the plant peters out into freehanded wisps of paint. At first sight, the grey-greenish leaves seem almost desaturated of color, but a closer look reveals a wealth of blues, browns, greens and reds that make up these intricately detailed yet consciously unfinished works.
Likely the most personal of the three series, this 18-piece portrait series was painted at a time when Pio, having created a name for himself in the art world and struggling to balance his own needs and wants with those of the clients that commissioned his work, tried to embrace the romantic ideal of the poor artist stuck in his attic, unheard by the world. Six months of that lifestyle were plenty to sober him up, but they also seem to have provided him with newfound confidence. And they resulted in these beautiful portraits.
All eighteen boys have touched the artist’s life in some important way, but none of them were told that they had been painted. Instead, Pio painted from pictures found on facebook. All have a name, a story, and a piercing gaze. The black paint masking part of their face is therefore a way to safeguard their anonymity, yet it’s also a way to relegate them to the past, to put a shade over their faces.
(c) Kurt Pio
These “sparkly” beauties are the original link between Kurt Pio and Antwerp. Intensely realistic and at the same time strangely abstract, Pio’s “Diamonds” sure pack a punch with their unusual shapes and vibrant colors. Antwerp is the world center of diamonds, and the journey that these diamonds have made from Cape Town to Antwerp perfectly symbolizes the journey that so many actual diamonds make every day. Though Kurt Pio obviously is too experienced an artist to ever be called a diamond in the rough but an experienced artist, we’re curious to see where his journeys might take him.