Constellation, a work that Alexis Preller included in his 1972 Retrospective at the Pretoria Art Museum, is a low relief made of gesso, oil and gold leaf on wood. Its spiralling galactic allusions are set against stylised stars and circular motifs which dominate the body of work he produced during this period. Earlier, solar discs and astronomical allusions were integrated into Preller’s major commissions such as All Africa in the mid-fifties and Discovery in the early sixties: in these, the stellar images were iconic, graphic representations. After these commissions and by the mid-1960s, Preller had embraced a more abstract painterly quality in a series focusing on astronomical themes. Strong circular motifs, which suggest mythological solar and stellar iconography, dominate complex works such as Gold Temple (1965), Temple of the Sun (1966), Helios (1965) and the gestural Phaeton’s Chariot of 1967. Preller introduces gold leaf into the paintings of this period, not solely for its ornamental value but also metaphorically as a symbol of light itself as, in many cultures, gold has alluded to the divine light of spirituality. Gold has distinct associations with the solar discs of Egyptian art, the radiance of enlightenment within Buddhism and was traditionally used in depicting halos within Christian iconography. The potential garishness of the gold in Preller’s work was tempered by thin washes of paint allowing it to become more elusive, less brassy. The swirling relief-like physicality in Constellation catches the light and evokes a fragment, a decorative architectural piece broken off some mythical temple structure. Preller’s experimentation with the high relief gesso is a tantalising precursor to his experimentation with his innovative intaglios of the late 1960s and into the 1970s.
Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, Alexis Preller Retrospective, 24 October 1972 to 26 November 1972, cat. no. 128.
Esmé Berman and Karel Nel (2009) Africa, the Sun and Shadows, Volume II, Collected Images, Johannesburg: Shelf Publishing. Illustrated in black and white on page 221.