Justus Kyalo is one of Kenya’s finest contemporary abstract painters. But in light of the work that he’s currently showing at Red Hill Gallery, one might also call him one of our best artistic alchemists. That’s because, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an alchemist is technically someone who practices alchemy or who’s engaged in the process of transforming something “in a mysterious or impressive way”.
The ‘something’ that he’s transformed are ordinary galvanized metal sheets. There’s nothing ‘ordinary’ about them after he’s ‘painted’ them with acid and blended the acid and metal mix (the metal having been coated with molten zinc to ‘galvanize’ it) with plain water. The effect is quite miraculous.
Kyalo says he mainly uses a brush to paint the acid onto his metallic ‘canvas.’ “In that respect, I have some control over the process,” he says at the Sunday afternoon opening at Red Hill. But occasionally he pours acid onto the metal, allowing the acid to move and work as it will.
Then, when he pours water onto the metal sheets (some of which are up to nine or ten feet long) the alchemy is out of his control.
Kyalo admits the outcome of the process, these metallic ‘paintings’, are a combination of control and serendipity. Or rather, they’re ‘controlled accidents’.
Kyalo’s works at Red Hill come in all sizes. Several are squares (around three feet by three feet). But mostly they are long rectangular works, two of which run from the floor to the ceiling in Hellmuth and Erica Rossler-Musch’s spacious gallery (which Hellmuth specifically built for the purpose of presenting fascinating works by both Kenyan and other East African artists).
The acid itself has a corrosive effect on the metal, apparently eating through the zinc coating and creating a rusty brown and ochre bundle of hues that take on organic shapes, all of which seems to have been produced purely by way of the alchemy.
In this his second solo exhibition at Red Hill, Kyalo has stepped back from working with oils and acrylics on canvas. Frankly, I like the freedom that he seems to let loose when he experiments with acid and water.
Those spaces on his metallic sheets where he initially leaves without acid take on a very different bluish-grey hue. But once he pours the water onto the metal surfaces, there is often a merger between acid and H20. That’s when the chemical dynamic gets interesting. The amazing mix tends to flow wherever it will.
(I’m writing this review just a few hours before the Academy Award winners are to be announced, so I’m inclined to suggest that his paintings convey a winning formula that constitutes “the shape of water”!)
In fact, as elusive as water’s shape may be, Kyalo seems to nail it as it takes on colourful, arabesque contours that surprise and delight the eyes.