by Bill Lasarow
"Bowl from Hina", pastel/pigment
"Phosphorescent Isle (Hiva Oa),"
(Leslie Sacks Fine Art, West Los Angeles) What is immediately perplexing about South African painter Karel Nel's work is that it is at once flamboyant and meditative. If visual art has developed its own version of World Beat music, Nel is certainly part of that. He draws heavily and knowingly on the images and artifacts of tribal culture, particularly that of his homeland and Oceania. While there is an acknowledged debt to Gauguin's romantic search, beyond his meticulously sensuous use of color, Nel is more than just a century removed from the French stockbroker's aesthetic sensibility.
If reflection on the human spirit is central to this work, it is not examined through the figure but indirectly, through artifacts. Addressing the human presence in the form of still life objects connects Nel to a tradition upheld by the likes of Chardin and Morandi, but there is an ethereal quality that is pushed aggresively by the newcomer. Like our own Ron Davis, however dramatically solid an object appears you still see through it. The space in which it is contained is finally more real, in neo-Platonic fashion suggesting that our mental space is the true container of the physical.
A work like Residual Memory of the Plaited Huts, with earth tones combed both around and within the central architectural figure, is hardly an homage to building techniques in the South Pacific. "Residual memory" transforms the hut into a mask, the eyes (all four of them) staring out, the mouth agape. You look into the mysterious depth of that mouth afraid of what might lie within it.
The homage to Gauguin is most explicit in his paintings of Hiva Oa, the island where the Master ended his life. A work such as Phosphorescent Isle (Hiva Oa) moves your eye across a landscape that feels like a narrative summation, an effort to compress a lengthy story into the single image. One of Gauguin's key works, D'ou Venons Nous. . .Que Sommes Nous. . .Oú Allons Nous?, did precisely this in the same attenuated format.
The still lifes are certainly the most visually stimulating part of Nel's body of work. Both Gift from Hina (Hiva Oa) and Bowl from Hina treat as their subject a bowl with a gorgeous bunch of bananas and shellfish surrounded with boxes and ashtrays. Powder and smoke add a religious, even mystical presence in both images. This also makes for tour de force imagery, an extremely rich interplay among the strong lines of the floor, the convincing volumes of each object, and the clouds of color that prod the eye to make eccentric jumps around the compositions.
Energetic and visually compelling, the intent of this artist connects to and offers a distinctly contemporary extension to high Modernism. Feeding on current scientific thinking, anthropological borrowing, and a strong spiritual intuition, Nel's updating is noble, informed, and bears watching.
"Gift from Hine (Hiva Oa)", pastel/pigment
"Residual Memory of a Plaited Hut",