Art First is presenting a new body of work from the esteemed South African artist Karel Nel’s. His compelling drawings convey the philosophical space of the studio itself as an arena of creativity and visual thinking. His own spacious studio in The Mudhif, his home in Rivonia, houses a remarkable collection of Southern African artefacts and Oceanic objects, gathered over decades from field trips and expeditions to far flung parts of the world. This same space transforms into a ceremonial dining room of note, and a gathering point for viewing and discussing works of art, commissions, ideas and projects. Sliding doors, which close across customised shelves where his extensive collections are carefully arranged, become the walls against which his drawings are created.
The works for this exhibition establish a profound dialogue between his own studio and that of Constantin Brancusi, as spaces in which a reflective search for meaning has taken place in significant ways from the early 20th Century to the present time. Brancusi and Duchamp have provided life-long inspiration for Nel, both as artists and thinkers. References to their art appear within these drawings, or fuse and converge, enabling fascinating spatial dislocations and multi-layered formal analogies to be read in several ways, visually and intellectually.
Thresholds are a point of transition, conduits of physical or imaginary movement from one space or zone, into another. They may be symbolic and charged with meaning according to the culture and place within which they exist. Anyone who has visited Brancusi’s studio outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris (he left it, together with the works it contained, to the City of Paris) will recognize at once its own particular thresholds and the spatial projections of its arrangement into the continuous space of Nel’s Mudhif. Brancusi’s sculptural forms – The Sorceress, Leda, Bird in Flight, Princess X, The Beginning of the World, White Negress, the Cock – as well as the Romanian inspired wood and stone bases, all take occupancy within Nel’s grand sequence of drawings, appearing alongside the African artefacts in his collection. Wooden Batonka stools, great carved wooden Zanzibar doors, two of which come directly from Alexis Preller’s home, the Ming Dynasty Chinese chairs, the honed Oceanic oars and the circular stone currency items, mingle harmoniously, timelessly, in a silent, primal exchange.
The new works expand on some of the ideas first touched on in Nel’s previous exhibition at Art First, There but Not There: The Presence of Absence. The works are linked to his journeys around the world as the resident artist for the COSMOS Project in which a global team of astrophysicists are currently measuring two square degrees of the universe. Infinity and deep time require metaphysical translation. Nel is one of a small group of artists practicing today whose encounter with scientists and great contemporary thinkers qualify him to render those concepts on two-dimensional surfaces of breath-taking, mysterious beauty.
Karel Nel is consistently generous in his interest and admiration of the work of others – not always a characteristic of established artists, who tend to be wedded to their own practice and daily preoccupations. Nel’s open approach, and his acute curiosity stem from the discipline of teaching, which he has done with dedication and inspirational insight at the Wits School of Arts in Johannesburg for thirty years. It also comes from his multifaceted role as artist, collector, curator and as an advisor to public institutions in South Africa, England and the USA.
His work is in public collections and Museums throughout South Africa, and in the United States he is represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, as well as in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Washington DC. A long-awaited, major publication on his work, his collection, writings and commissions is under way, to be published in 2015