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Margaret Nel’s body of output spans a professional career launched in 1974, featuring several solo shows resulting in the incorporation of her work in numerous public and corporate collections, and culminating in a substantially reviewed and critiqued retrospective exhibition housed within the National Cultural History Museum in 2000 featuring more than sixty seminal works.
Nel’s early creative output was largely shaped by the ground of the late Pop movement which she entered upon as a student and young professional artist, with the aesthetic sensibilities of Hard Edge in particular, combined with the return to figuration as motivated by the work of Valerio Adami and the Nouvelle Figuration group, having a seminal impact on her oeuvre.
Her lack of attraction for the abstractionist line within Late Pop, coupled with her paralleled preoccupation with the British strain of the Movement and the early portraiture of Hockney, propelled her tendency toward figuration. Early interest in the disjointed figuration in the work of Ronald Kitaj, Blake and Bacon was reflected in Nel’s early recurrent treatment of groups of figures as anatomically distorted and anonymously planar, often housed within shaped canvases.
These early influences can still be extracted from her preoccupation and formal treatment of figuration which has remained paramount throughout her career. The primacy of the figure is for Nel, simultaneously, but moreover, a necessary vehicle for the housing of social content.
Early manifestations of her treatment of figuration resided in the thematic preoccupation with runners, derived from often-obscured black and white newspaper reference clippings of athletes captured mid-event. The configuration of figures, rendered anonymous and visceral through the cropping of facial and demarcated hands and feet, indicated Nel’s attraction to the theme of The Race, that is, the human instinct towards pushing aside for personal position.
A sudden move away from Hard Edge, towards the inclusion and eventual prominence of facial features and hands, albeit distorted, garnered critical acclaim. The completion of Mrs. A in 1974 indicated the exposure of a distressed psychological undercurrent through the visceral treatment of facial flesh, which combined influences of Peter Blake and Francis Bacon.
The thematic structure of figuration of Nel’s work rests in its use within the binary contexts of social and personal commentary. The isolated figure indicates her preoccupation with the effects of societal isolation.
The subsequent themes of inadequate preparation - either physical or emotional, was augmented by the sudden tide of emigration within the shared social psyche of South Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. The theme of exodus and escape in Nel’s work were thus broadened to encompass the idea of the attempt at relieving an untenable situation, the ultimate ends of which of which are rendered futile or dashed through internal or uncontrollable external forces. The loss of the individual’s control, which reads much like a Kafka novel, is a dominating preoccupation running through the work.
In the late 1980s, Nel’s work moved drastically and intuitively towards the incorporation of Postmodern tendencies, with a heavy predominance placed on iconoclasm and the multiple reading of content. Simultaneously, an interest in still life - along the abstractionist lines of Thiebaud - surfaced, which in turn reinforced the incorporation of multiple objects within the shared space of the figure, deepening the work’s capacity to engender multi-dimensional readings. The concurrent global notions of environmental abuse and mismanagement, then still in its infancy, became an addendum to Nel’s thematic ground of the failed flight, where in particular, the concern for lack of environmental sustenance was read as analogous to a lack of emotional sustenance.
Nel’s current work has become increasingly drawn towards rendering the psychological schism and loss of personal control within the ground of random violence, which remains unnegotiated and unfamiliar. The effects of mental debilitation and the unremittant threat to self, which translates as the negating of identity, have translated into a partial technical return to earlier planar abstraction, a total abandonment of earlier symbolic semiotic holding devices, and the rendering of the figure in over life-size proportions.
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