Archive: Issue No. 26, October 1999

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A monthly feature on an artist currently in the public eye

Karel Nel

Karel Nel at work

Karel Nel

ABSA (detail)

Karel Nel

Studio view

Karel Nel

Vessel Head

Karel Nel

Axis of the Underworld

Karel Nel

Bowl of Isles

Karel Nel

Rods Alpha Omega

Karel Nel

Core Tapestries 1994
4 mohair tapestries
1200 x 150cm each

Karel Nel

Transmuter 1986
Drawing on bonded fibre fabric
220 x 193cm


By Kathryn Smith (October, 1999)

Modus operandi:

In a pre-millennial moment when our real spiritual consciousness is often as nourishing as fast food, Karel Nel's work seems somewhat anachronistic yet strangely confluent with current interest in the mystical far-left of physics. Entropy, chaos theory and the metaphor of the circuit/transmitter/transmutor come into play in work where mark-making dissolves forms into "particles". In his work, art meets science meets spirituality in attempting understandings of the cosmos. Nel works primarily in large-scale drawings and land art projects and even larger corporate and public commissions. Tracing the process and products of his "mind's eye" is fundamental to the artist's work. Nel views mental images as a "blueprint" we project onto the world to make something "take place" with equal effect and counter-effect on ourselves and those around us.

Artist's statement:

"For me drawing has always been a kind of reconnaissance, a means to explore the world around me. Over many years, I have attempted to carefully 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. Art and science have traditionally been seen as radically different disciplines. Yet both question the nature of reality, and both have sometimes constructed remarkably similar views of the world. Much of my drawing and environmental art work draws on these ways of world-making, exploring the external and internal phenomena we call 'reality'."

From 'The Wedge - Staff of the Department of Fine Arts, University of the Witwatersrand' catalogue 1999


Nel is working on a mega-commission to be installed in the new ABSA building, currently under construction in downtown Johannesburg. The commission was awarded in a competition held last year, and the installation has to be completed by the end of this month. A manual of spaces "in need of artwork" was made available to artists, who then worked with a particular site in mind.

Due to its monumental scale (22m X 7m), Nel's piece is constructed as a huge "puzzle" system of shallow wooden box frames, enabling the artist to work in his studio then transport elements to the site for installation. The "drawing" is built up in sections, into each of which is poured a 50/50 mix of paper pulp and plaster of Paris, coloured with industrial pigments. The luscious colour and surface textures are then sealed in with conservation resins and the plaster/paper mix prevents shrinkage as it dries.

The image is based on the earlier 'Table' and 'House' series. The simplified image of a house has rich resonance for Nel: it is one of the first things a child draws, and is also a place of nurture and an emblem of a cyclical life/death process. A map of Robben Island hovers as a central image in the giant jigsaw, provoked by a comment made by Nelson Mandela that a fundamental need for each individual is a table to eat at and a roof over one's head. For years, Robben Island served this purpose for our country's leaders, albeit in a perverse way. With complex conceptual and aesthetic integrity, Nel manages to capture the spirit and practical functions of a financial institution (surety, security and investment in the future) in an abstract form that allows for a far broader reading, harnessing a point of access so crucial for public art.

Before that:

Nel's work is largely about process and a journey, so it is not surprising that many of his major projects are still in progress and run concurrently. He recently curated the national touring exhibition 'Evocations of the Child: Fertility Figures of Southern Africa' with Nessa Leibhammer, which received great interest from the art going public, collectors, academics and school groups. Nel was deeply invested in this project for several years, doing extensive fieldwork, and designing, co-ordinating and writing the catalogue, which won a South African Museums and Publication Design Award this year. In 1997 he was awarded the 'Soweto Garden Project' commission on behalf of FRAC, France, which is still in progress.

And before that:

Nel's work has always incorporated exotic places, whether he is collecting art and artefacts or travelling to produce his own work in different and challenging environments. In journeys reminiscent of those of Gauguin, his interest in sacred art and ancient cultures have taken him to Tahiti, the Toumoutous Atolls, the Marquesas islands, Pitcairn Island and Easter Island. In 1996, the French government awarded him a commission that combines his greatest passions: Ways of Stone is a three kilometre walkway from the outer lip to the inner rim of the volcano Piton de la Fournaise on the island of Reunion. Scheduled for completion in 2000, Nel has been consulting and working with a team that includes earth scientists, astronomers, palaeoanthropologists and historians in a mammoth project that maps the earth's journey from the time of the volcano's first appearance to the end of the second millennium.

Nel's work is also part of the impressive Gencor/Billingtons collection, for which he produced four very large Core Tapestries in 1995. Fittingly, these have a geological impetus, mapping the "journey to the earth's core" in the search for valuable minerals. He has won numerous awards, including the Vita Art Now prize twice, in 1986 and 1990 respectively.

Next up:

Despite numerous solo and group shows overseas, Karel Nel has not had a solo show in this country since 1990 and will mark the end of this millennium with two exhibitions at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg. 'Solo Journeys' will focus on his pilgrimage to and work on the volcano in Reunion, and 'Bridewealth, Currency and Other Assets' will display selections from his personal collection of African art which spans the entire period of his interest - from boyhood to pieces recently acquired abroad.

Curriculum vitae:

Karel Nel lives and works in Johannesburg, where he is a senior lecturer in the Fine Arts Department of the University of Witwatersrand. He was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1955.

Selected solo exhibitions

1998 'Images of Paradise and Death', Leslie Sack Fine Art, Los Angeles
1996 'View of the Inner House', Art First, Cork Street, London
1995 'Isles and the Inner House', Leslie Sack Fine Art, Los Angeles
1994 'Inner Province', Art First, Cork Street, London

1993 Resident artist, Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown

1990 'Recent Works', Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg. Vita Art Now quarterly award. Vita Art Now annual award

1986 'Quiet Lives', Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of the Witwatersrand. Vita Art Now quarterly award. Vita Art Now annual award

Selected group exhibitions

1999 'Exchange', recent works by the Staff of the Department of Fine Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, Sandton Civic Gallery
1998 'Divided City'- 6m circular sheet of paper, made in situ, one half of recycled 'Sandton Chronicles' and the other half from 'The Sowetan', installed at the Sandton Civic Gallery for the duration of the exhibition 'Nearer than Bronze'
1997 'Art '97', the London Contemporary Art Fair with Art First
1996 'Three Years On! - A selection of international and British artists', Art First, Cork Street, London
1996 'Insights', Wright Gallery, New York
1995 'Temenos' installation, JAG, Johannesburg Biennale
1994 'Artists Under the Southern Cross', Stedelijke Museum, Amsterdam
1993 'Affinities - Contemporary South African Art', Midlands Contemporary Art, Birmingham
1993 'XLV Venice Biennale, Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, Fondazione Levi, Venice

Selected commissions

1999-2000 'Places of Nurture', ABSA, Johannesburg, in progress
1998 'Signs of Fire', commissioned drawings for the new B/M/D headquarters, Cape Town
1997 'Soweto Gardens', Soweto Garden Project, on behalf of FRAC, France, in progress
1996-2000 'Ways of Stone', Reunion, Indian Ocean, on behalf of FRAC, France, in progress
1995 Four 'Core Tapestries' for Gencor/Biliton, Johannesburg


1991 University of California, Berkeley (Fulbright placement): MAFA
1978 St Martins' School of Art: Postgraduate Diploma
1977 University of the Witwatersrand : BA(Fine Arts)

Public collections

Karel Nel's work is represented in all major local museum and corporate collections, as well as the Smithsonian Institute, Washington.



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