With a solo show in a smart Mayfair gallery and a Paul Huf Award nomination in 2015, Nico Krijno is living many young artists' dream - but he did it by doing his own thing
Known for working with brightly-coloured, very obviously retouched still life images, it’s easy to identify Nico Krijno with the new wave of work spearheaded by Lucas Blalock and Sam Falls. He agrees with a non-committal “I guess” but says that, based out on a farm near Cape Town and brought up in a small town by the Boschberg Mountains, he’s more used to doing his own thing.
“It’s like totally isolated out there!” he tells me in Beetles + Huxley Gallery, the smart Mayfair space currently showing his work. “There aren’t the institutions, there are no bookshops, zero. I’m here to soak up some culture.
“But I think if you’re isolated, you’re not exposed to everything that’s going on in London, you have to go inward,” he adds. “And that’s important.”
Born in South Africa in 1981, Krijno never studied photography. Interested in writing and plays he studied theatre and film-making in Cape Town, before deciding his ideas were getting lost in “the hierarchy of all the people” on set and swapping onto stills. He moved to London with his wife and spent three years “editing and taking portraits of people and models”, until she told him to stop and rethink.
“She said ‘You’re here now, do what you want to do – stop compromising and trying to work for i-D Magazine, because that’s not you’,” he says. “So then I just did my own thing, and things started to happen.”
That’s putting it pretty modestly because over the last six years he’s shown his work around the world in prestigious galleries such as Beetles + Huxley and The Ravestijn Gallery, been nominated for the 2015 Paul Huf Award, and worked with publications such as Neon, Disturber, L’official and Dazed Digital. His solo show at Beetles + Huxley, The Fluid Right Edge, includes images from the last two years or so; gently resisting hype, he describes one, Mignonne with Iris (2015), as him “just hashing out what I was trying to say”.
“It was made while I was on a residency in Johannesburg, and I was trying to figure out what I was doing there,” he says. “It was tough, and it was freezing, but I made a lot of work because I just had to.”
It includes deliberately heavy-handed post-processing, and others do the same; others are more subtle, but in each shot, it’s hard to work out what was in front of the camera. For Krijno, that’s the point. Drawing on his background in theatre he’s interested in the “layering of illusion”, he says, creating a whole new world but in 2D, not on the stage. His image Porthole (2014) even includes a curtain backdrop, for example, and he’s previously shown it draped with a cloth.
“All those devices, those theatrical devices are quite interesting to me,” he says. “I’ve always had an issue with ‘the truth’. I’ve always interfered [with my images].”
It’s another factor that’s meant he’s had to go his own way because, in South Africa, documentary photography is still king. He says such work doesn’t speak to him – that if he walks into an exhibition of work “that all looks the same” his eyes glaze over – but that it’s something that’s hard to avoid back home.
“A lot of the institutions are driving that narrative, saying ‘Look, you have to find a contested topic and put a previously disenfranchised person centre frame’,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t study photography in South Africa – I would have been pushed. I would have decided that in order to make money I had to compromise somehow, go into a commercial avenue.
“My brother is the same,” he adds. “He’s a painter – he studied acting and then teaching, and now he’s an amazing painter. There’s a uniqueness because he didn’t go through the system. It churns out these artists who are just going to regurgitate – they find it hard to find their feet, because they go in this room of all these people doing very similar things.”
Even so, he feels his work has a particularly South African sensibility. Made with the flotsam and jetsam “that finds me”, his images often include vibrant local fabrics and plants; even when they don’t, they reflect the intense quality of light there, and the “bright, crazy colours” it creates. Krijno describes his homeland as “magical”, and says it brings “a specific raw and violent beauty, to the production of aesthetic images”.
And his spirit of DIY might draw something from home too, as his 2015 image Untitled (Paarl Stacks) 2015 suggests. It shows a self-built home in an informal settlement, on which the owner has added an enormous structure out of wooden pallets; Krijno has then “fucked with the levels a bit” to extend. He found the structure on Google Earth and had to drive out to see it, he says. “It’s just a facade, you can’t go up there,” he explains. “It’s an expression [of creativity].”
It’s an image his South African gallery at the time found hard to digest, declining to show it and suggesting he stick to still life; Krijno can see that his work might seem disparate, but says that to him, there’s always a thread. In this show he can see a narrative that might include a house, pieces of furniture, and inhabitants, he says – but he wouldn’t want to specify a story “because that’s very personal [to each viewer]”.
In fact for Krijno, making work isn’t about series or projects, it’s more of a constant flow. He sees his books and solo shows, which he creates with the help of editors and curators, as useful “lines in the sand” but jokes that promoting The Fluid Right Edge is like being in a band, “and having an album you tour for a while”.
When he’s making work his images “all bleed into each other”, he says, “one thing leads to another”. “I just start to play. I’m constantly experimenting – it’s quite impulsive, on instinct. Really half the time I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s like a constant ploughing through, rowing this boat through photography, trying to have fun and be creative.
“Everything is process,” he continues. “A lot of people have asked me, why do you post pictures of your child on Instagram? But she’s my life, it’s my life. There will be images of the space where I’ve made these images too. Everything is there – everything is everything, that’s how I feel about it.”