Hovering at the point where art, science and biology intersect, renowned South African artist, Karel Nel’s approach to the natural world is meditative but also investigative. His long standing body of work entitled Elegies to the Forests, harbours a deep sense of lament as he grapples with the waning of the world’s great forests and the growing threat of their extinction. Yet his drawings inspire us to marvel at Nature’s gifts and to consider the compelling formal complexities of leaves themselves, alongside the tragic beauty they may come to represent.
Watch Karel Nel talk about his work – and the work of Joni Brenner
“Leaves have always struck me as remarkable structures in their own right. They have the innate ability to produce nutrition from sunlight, and their forms clearly reflect the radiant nature of their contained yet diffuse energy fields. For me they are a model of the sacred, purposeful and non-wasteful life pattern which continues quietly, without partaking in the violent food chain of consumption. Leaves are nonetheless flamboyant and transitory, with a transcendent inevitability to their own particular life-cycle. “
Path of the Cyclone evokes exactly this mix of lush beauty and vulnerability. The drawing stems from one of Nel ‘s visits to a remote and relatively uninhabited island in the Seychelles. Home to the giant Coco de Mer Palm, Nel was asked to harvest one of the great leaves which he cut and suspended within the shelter where he stayed. The contextualization of the leaf within a man made structure helps the viewer to understand the actual scale of the leaf with its own naturally engineered structure. From that commission, a series of drawings followed, showing an array of magnificent leaf forms as they grow around the walkways and lodges.
Nel is also a major collector of African and Oceanic traditional artefacts. Increasingly his collection is the subject of his work, influencing the drawings in subtle ways.
Parinirvana appears at first to be a luminous arrangement of abstract forms. That it is an architectural setting for an interior on two levels gradually emerges. It is a metaphysical space, charged with thought and mysterious energies, and it describes one of art history’s sacred spaces, for this is Brancusi’s Paris studio. The cushioned shapes below belong to the makeshift bed where Brancusi spent his last night alive, contemplating a globe of the world, suspended above him.
The ‘silent thresholds’ to which the scene alludes comes from a recent body of work under that title where every drawing pays tribute to this touchstone sculptor whose formative influence continues to penetrate Nel’s thinking. Other drawings in the series fuse the studio space of Brancusi with Nel’s own studio, housing as it does, objects from his collection seen alongside the working drawings.
Nel’s travels as resident artist to the Cosmos Project have taken him to places in far flung parts of the world. Visits to Japan inspired drawings of one of the great Zen temples in Kyoto; Ryoan-ji’s rock garden has been raked for over 500 years, inciting a meditative state across generations. The horizontal drawing echoes the shape of the garden, seen from the seating platform. The black upright grid structure divides the composition, hinting at axial symmetries associated with the garden, alerting us to rhythms of thought and to the balance of opposites.
These drawings point to just a few of the many areas of visual thinking that has comprised Nel’s output over three decades, each body of work forging a further set of integrated connections and counterpoints that have emerged alongside and in conversation with his commitments to teaching, curating, collecting and travel.
Nel is Associate Professor in Fine Art at the Wits School of Arts. A forthcoming book on his life and work is under way for 2016. In Cape Town two major works can be seen at the Iziko National Gallery and at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch. His work is also represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, and in significant corporate and private collections world wide.
TEXT: ART FIRST LONDON http://www.artfirst.co.uk