by Michael Smith (April, 2007)
Karel Nel has been a significant force in contemporary art in South Africa for almost three decades now. His presence as artist, collector, curator and lecturer has left an indelible mark on the Johannesburg and South African art scenes. His work deals with metaphysical concerns, forming an interstice between the scientific and the spiritual, the aesthetic and the environmental. In fact, since being awarded a Fulbright placement at the University of California, Berkeley, Nel has been intensely interested in the connections between art and science, an interest that has manifested in much of his work since then.
Nel's drawing is often informed by and serves to document (albeit in a highly encoded form) his broad travels. His interest in the life and work of the great French Post-impressionist Paul Gauguin has led him to extensive engagement with the landscape and cultures of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, along with numerous other destinations throughout the Pacific. He has also worked at length on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, in conjunction with a team of scientists.
Karel Nel primarily draws, using pastel and sprayed pigment onto bonded fibre fabric. This fabric has a certain sympatico with pastel, ensuring an immediacy of mark and an intensity of colour. Unlike paper which carries pastel and charcoal marks at its surface, the fabric Nel uses draws the mark deep into itself. It thus requires a fairly intense discipline, as marks cannot simply be erased: once made, they remain.
However, Nel frequently makes use of other media, as concept and context demand. For the site-specific work The Way of the Stone made on the island of Réunion, Nel created the situation for an interactive, essentially land art work. He has also worked in media as diverse as paper sculpture and tapestry for Absa and Gencor commissions respectively.
Scale has always played an important role in his images. Their size intensifies their power and presence, and creates a crucial intimacy. This interest in scale also frequently allows the works to mirror the landscapes they reference. In a pair of works from 2000, Blue Stretch, Johannesburg Réunion and Volcanic Presence, Réunion, their panoramic width (181cm and 230cm respectively) seems to signal the seemingly infinite width of the horizon as viewed from an aeroplane in transit between these two places. Pre-Linguistic Landscape, from the previous year, measured a dramatic 440cm in width.
To separate Nel's interest as a collector from his artistic endeavours is to see only half the picture. Since the age of 12 he has been collecting artefacts, with a sensitivity to their cultural import as well as their aesthetic qualities. Nel's collection of African, Polynesian and Micronesian objects, ranging from forms of currency and work implements through to ritual objects and textiles, performs a didactic function for understanding his art. So much so that parts of this collection formed a key component of his 1999 project at the Standard Bank Gallery. For this event, both floors of this large space were utilised: the top section housed the exhibition 'Solo Journeys', a series of drawings resulting from his travels of the previous few years; downstairs, Nel curated a show from his own collection, entitled 'Bridewealth, Currency and Other Assets� a bachelor's collection'. This exercise illustrated the symbiotic relationship between Nel's work in contemporary art and objects from a collective human history. An important part of this process of collecting historical objects and images, and in turn reflecting them in his work, seems to be an interest in reclamation, the conceptual redemption of their meanings and value across temporal boundaries. Nel's practice of curating these objects into collections and shows ensures that they are viewed for the formally intricate and conceptually complex objects they are rather than 'curios' from fading cultures. Furthermore, when they are alluded to or directly referenced in his work, they become the backbone of a highly nuanced personal iconography.
'For me art-making has always been a kind of reconnaissance, a means to explore and make sense of the world around me. Over many years I have attempted to document my "mind's eye" perceptions. The complex and often subtle interface of the inner and outer worlds has stimulated me to attempt to understand the primary mechanisms of perception - the inner vision from the mind's eye and the outer world using the physical eye.
'Both art and science use visualisation and mental abstraction to grasp and theorise, and my interest in the relationship between art and science is connected to questioning the long-held view that they are radically different disciplines. Both question the nature of reality, and both have sometimes constructed remarkably similar views of the world. Much of my drawing and environmental artwork explores the external and internal phenomena we call reality and, in my work, I draw on both artistic and scientific ways of making the world.
'As an artist interested in the mechanisms of perception, and as a collector, I have looked for shared creative thought patterns that are manifest in a variety of objects. Many of the objects I have been drawn to and collected have been made as innovative responses to physical needs and intellectual or ideological endeavours. These objects are aesthetic but also reflect mental processes which seem to be part of the shared human capacity for problem-solving in the complex neurological structure of the brain. Related to this investment of thought into matter is my long-standing interest in how value is created in a society. Through my work, I have explored how value is embodied in material forms of stored labour, such as currencies, ritualised objects and artworks.
'Over many years, my interest has focused on sacred art and how the values of societies are encoded, consciously or unconsciously, in the art of various cultures. Sacred or hallowed values inform the construction of consensus realities, belief systems that underpin social action and economy. These inform different systems of value that enable trade and transactions in various places, ranging from stock exchanges and art auction houses to remote fishing villages of the world. It is these complex transactions and their varied manifestations and shifts across time, that continue to prompt and inspire both my inextricably linked art-making and collecting.'
'Nel's obsessive travel is a direct source for the material that constitutes his art. Through his journeys he attempts to research those remaining places where precapitalist forms of value persists, where objects used in transaction have a charged ritual significance and weave distinct communities into the same web of obligation� (He) often alludes in his work to cultures that maintain a ritualised association with the earth as a receptive form of being.� (David Bunn, 'Breath Alphabet: Karel Nel and the History of Division', 2002)
'Of necessity, his art has had to follow the trajectory of an inner journey, trawling amidst the rich multiplicity of the world's cultural traditions, their rites and symbols, searching for that imagery which might connect our conscious lives with the deepest spiritual potential within ourselves.' (Poet Stephen Watson in a 1994 essay on Nel's work)
'Nel's work has always been interspersed with extensive travel. He has allowed himself time to look closely not only at museums and collections in the art capitals of the world, but also at traditions of sacred art in far flung parts of the globe, including Tahiti, Easter Island and the Marquesas islands, where Gauguin (a seminal influence in his art) spent his last years'. (Clare Stracey 'Karel Nel: Volcanic Texts', 2000)
Nel's 2007 show at the Standard Bank Gallery sees a similar curatorial strategy to the aforementioned 1999 show at the same venue. Along with a large body of work culled from various series and projects, Nel will once again show a selection of items form his ever-expanding collection of artefacts. These items will serve an indexical function, serving to illuminate for the viewer the finer points of Nel's thinking.
Entitled 'Lost Light', the exhibition reveals, amongst other things, work created while Nel has been involved in a project of mapping 2 square degrees of the Universe. While the width and height parameters are given, the depth for which this exercise continues is literally infinite. The astronomers with whom Nel has worked on this project have established that some of the light they see through a series of powerful telescopes left its place of origin as much as 8 000 000 years ago. Thus this becomes a process of mapping time as much as the physical phenomena of space. For the works related to this endeavour, Nel has frequently used carboniferous material formed on the Gondwanaland landmass before the splitting of the continents. This intensely black material carries with it the resonances of pre-history and the infinity of time, lending a materiality to this project's temporal journey. The works he has produced in relation to this project seem to reference the history of abstraction stretching from Kasimir Malevich through to Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella. Yet far from being simply formal exercises, they give the viewer simultaneous tastes of deep space and deep consciousness.
Also on this show are a number of monochromatic drawings Nel has produced following a number of visits to an uninhabited island in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, entitled In the Presence of Leaves,. Harking back to his 1996 show at the Art First Gallery in London entitled 'View on the Inner House', these works deal with the concepts of house and home, the abode which represents an emotional and spiritual security as much as it provides a physical haven. Nel's decision to eschew the spectacular colour of the 1996 show and render these images instead in muted monochrome was the result of a desire to capture something of the constant closeness of natural sound on this uninhabited island - the continuous yet intangible sounds of water, wind and a sense of the presence of a life force. The results are powerful investigations into tone, texture and scale.
The images are, for the most part, located in plaited huts. Nel has drawn huge palm fronds into these interiors, establishing a botanical rather than human presence. The works on 1996's 'View on the Inner House' had direct political ramifications, imaging Robben Island, the site of Nelson Mandela's 27-year-long incarceration. In these new works Nel seems to pick up on some of the older works' more universal concerns, such as the aspirations towards security and stability as represented by a home.
In 2002 and 2003 Nel showed a body of works entitled 'Status of Dust' at the New York and London branches of Art First gallery respectively. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the works took as their starting point the physical nature and the concept of dust. In the wake of 2001's horrific attack on the World Trade Center's so-called 'Twin Towers' in New York City, numerous artists began dealing with the event's details and ramifications. One of the most visible and controversial of these was American Eric Fischl, whose works on this theme dealt with the immediate human dimension of this catastrophe. Nel's interpretation of the event was, by contrast, less sensational, despite the fact that he had been resident at the Ampersand Foundation's studio in the near vicinity of the Twin Towers until a mere four days before the event. Nel returned to the site and collected dust from the perimeters of Ground Zero, which he used to make numerous works on the 'Status of Dust' show.
Three works, in particular, works emerge from this series as key to Nel's exploration of this concept. Zero, Eleven and Monument were a far cry from Fischl's Mannerist bodies frozen in their deadly descent. Obliquely similar to Barnett Newman's series of 'zip' paintings, Nel's works spoke instead about voids, emptinesses, absences. In Zero a large zero digit is created from yellow dust from the mine dumps of City Deep, one of the first gold mines in Johannesburg. The work deals with the concept of the mathematical concept of 'zero', originating in Arabian mathematics. Nel speaks of the suspicion with which Europeans first treated this strange concept, before adopting it as an integral part of Western mathematics. This obviously has implications for the politics surrounding the destruction of the World Trade Center. In an essay for the catalogue of this show entitled 'Breath Alphabet: Karel Nel and the History of Division', Professor David Bunn (then Head of the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand), speaks of these works as dealing with 'a shift in global subjectivity towards an irrevocably transformed understanding of collective trust' . In Nel's drawing the East-West polarisation so effectively exacerbated and exploited by cynical impulses on both sides, is nullified by his imaging of the digit zero, the liminal space between positive and negative.
In Monument and Eleven Nel explores the formal connections between the number 11 and the physical shape of the Twin Towers. The interplay between positive and negative space in these seemingly abstract works forces one to consider whether one is looking at the silhouettes of these buildings or speculative imagings of their absences. Like Zero they incorporate into their physical manifestation dust collected at the Ground Zero. The works are a stark, almost ascetic counterpoint to much of the artist's previous and subsequent work, lending them an appropriate reverence in the face of this disaster.
In 2000, Nel showed 'Volcanic Texts' at Art First in London. The exhibition showed works generated in response to a project in which Nel worked with a team of scientists on the volcanic crater Piton de la Fournaise on the island of Réunion. One component of this project was the site-specific work The Way of the Stone. This consists of a three-kilometer walkway from the outer lip of the volcano to the inner rim. Nel conceptualised this a walkway as much temporal as geographical: it functions as a model of a timeline, tracing a history from the earth's beginnings 3 500 000 years ago to the present. At specific points along the path, circular bronze plaques detail major events from history, geology, physics, anthropology, paleoanthropology and astronomy. The visitors themselves will transform the path itself, currently a series of crude markings in white paint. As Nel says, 'Over the next 50 years, a tradition will be established in which smooth white pebbles (to be picked from a conical mound at the information centre) will be carried and placed along the route by the walkers themselves', transforming the walkway into 'a clear pilgrim's route leading through the cloud across the silver grey lava fields'.
The work on the 'Volcanic Texts' gallery show, though conceptually indivisible from this site-specific project, was a familiar manifestation of Nel's practice. Aforementioned works like Blue Stretch, Johannesburg Réunion and Volcanic Presence, Réunion explore the journey to and from the island, representing what Clare Stracey calls 'Nel's instinctive sense of an inner and an outer vision'. Other works, such as an extensive series called Places Without Names utilize a conical format which evokes geological formations such as mountains beneath the surface of the sea. The works intentionally combine elements of map-making and personal notation, tantalisingly obscure in their geographical reference while simultaneously being obsessively detailed.
Other works like Nascent Field and Red Core seem to revisit interests established in the making of 1995's Four Core Tapestries for Gencor Mining Group (now BHP Billiton). Red Core in particular seems to suggest the fragility of landmasses, the earth's surface, and the violent geological power which paradoxically give rise to verdant paradises such as the Island of Réunion.
Prior to this show, Nel presented the previously-mentioned 'Solo Journeys' at the Standard Bank Gallery in 1999. Other major solo outings include his 1994 show 'Inner Province' at Art First in London; his 1993 position of Artist-in-Residence at the Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown; and 1986's 'Quiet Lives' at the now-defunct Gertrude Posel Gallery at Wits University.
Born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa in 1955
Graduated with a BA Fine Art Degree from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in 1977.
St. Martin's School of Art, London, 1977 - 78
Lectureship at the Wits School of the Arts since 1980 and Associate Professorship since 1988
MAFA at University of California, Berkeley (Fulbright Placement) in 1988 and 1989
Guest of the United States Information Agency's Visitors Program, Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York in 1995
SELECTED SOLO SHOWS
2003 'Status of Dust', Art First, London
2002 'Status of Dust', Art First, New York
2000 'Volcanic Texts', Art First, London
1999 'Solo Journeys', Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
1998 'Images of Paradise and Death', Leslie Sacks Fine Art, Los Angeles
1996 'View on the Inner House', Art First, London
1995 'Isles and the Inner House', Leslie Sacks Fine Art, Los Angeles
1994 'Inner Province', Art First, London
1990 'Recent Works', Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
1986 'Quiet Lives', Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
1983 'Recent Drawings' and Guest Artist at Johannesburg Art Gallery
1980 'Drawings', Olivetti Gallery, Johannesburg
2001 'Anniversary Exhibition', Art First, London
1999 'Emergence', Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown
1998 'Divided City' installation in 'Nearer than Bronze', Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg
1996 'Insights', Wright Gallery, New York
'Vita Art Now', Johannesburg Art Gallery
1994 'Artists under the Southern Cross', Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
1987 'National Drawing Competition Exhibition', Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown
1982 'Cape Town Triennial' (Gold Medalist), South African National Gallery, Cape Town
1999 South African Museums Publication Design Award for 'Evocations of the Child', published by Human and Rousseau with the Johannesburg Art Gallery
1991 The Old Mutual Vita Award: Overall Winner
The Simpson Fellowship, University of California, Berkeley
1989 Art Gallery Founders Prize of the University of California, Berkeley
1987 Fulbright Placement (University of California, Berkeley)
University Council Fellowship (University of the Wiwatersrand)
1986, 87 and 88 Finalist, Volkskas Atelier Award
1981 Almaks Stainless Steel Sculpture prize
1979 Montagu White Travel Grant to Saint Martin's School of Art, London
1978 Montagu White Bursary
Afrox Metal Art Sculpture Competition: Afrox Prize: Open Category
1977 Afrox Metal Sculpture Annual Competition (Student Award)