Portrait of the artist at death’s door

Exhibition Reviews

Lloyd Pollak is an art historian and lecturer, who writes monthly columns for Creative Feel.

Luan Nel’s solo show Diction, held at CIRCA Cape Town from 29 March to 23 April 2017, was ‘a poetic bittersweet exploration into notions of language, visual cues and the everyday social media of conversations, debates, clashes and attacks, and ultimately our ability to negotiate a “safe” path through it all.’ Art lecturer and historian, Lloyd Pollak, reviews the exhibition.

Long before I ever met Luan Nel, I was reminded daily of his existence. In 1995 I was given a swooningly beautiful set of cards portraying shipboard romances and gorgeous couples, dancing and pitching the woo on the swish Deco ocean liners of the 1930s. I had these ultra-stylish images laminated, and stuck them to my fridge, and thus when I finally met Nel at his exhibition Diction at the Everard Read CIRCA Gallery, I was already a keen devotee. Diction is inspired by a concatenation of events triggered in 2011 when Nel fell off the open staircase at the home he shared with Neil Pendock, his partner for the past 26 years. His skull cracked open and Neil saved his life by holding his head together until the ambulance arrived. The prognosis was grim: the brain surgeon stated Nel was unlikely to survive the operation, and if survive he did, he would be unable to recognise anybody, speak or move.

My aim was to reflect the disjunction we experience in cyberspace where you see the Sistine chapel, a money-saving special on Kentucky Fried Chicken, a scientist pontificating about global warming, massacres in Syria and breakdancing all in rapid succession

‘I spent a month in intensive care and another in high care before moving into a normal ward,’ Nel recounted. ‘I suffered severe memory loss and during my long, lonely period of recuperation, I overcame my technophobia and mastered my laptop so as to maintain my contact with my friends and the outside world. Gradually I filled my profile with images and memories as I pieced together the jigsaw puzzle of my hazily remembered former life. I tinkered with photographs, altering and distorting them, and thereby I created a new visual language. It is this language that my paintings speak, a broken language that reflects the profusion of unrelated facts and images one trawls up whilst surfing the web where all continuity between the various elements is irreparably ripped asunder. ‘Gallery-goers complained that Diction lacked a thematic nub and was too fragmented, but that was exactly what I sought. My aim was to reflect the disjunction we experience in cyberspace where you see the Sistine chapel, a money-saving special on Kentucky Fried Chicken, a scientist pontificating about global warming, massacres in Syria and breakdancing all in rapid succession.’ And indeed the paintings, like a shuffled deck of cards, seem unrelated: a carefree lyrical cloudscape, views of the snowy Himalayan peaks and a study of the delicious monster are all juxtaposed. A seascape, a close-up of breaking waves and a vignette of Edwardian ladies-in-waiting bowing deferentially to his Majesty, all coexist in close and confusing contiguity.

And indeed the paintings, like a shuffled deck of cards, seem unrelated: a carefree lyrical cloudscape, views of the snowy Himalayan peaks and a study of the delicious monster are all juxtaposed

One work alone alludes to Nel’s fall, Slip, which portrays the fearful staircase. The burst of light directly beneath it is associated with near-death experiences, and it represents how the nigh fatal fall heightened Nel’s sense of the fragility and preciousness of life. Below the different constellations dimly glow. The purple and deep pink circles and rings that so enliven the painting, evoke eternity and planetary orbits. Slip addresses chance, the random, and the arbitrariness of life in a universe governed by chaos theory where a butterfly fluttering its wings in Patagonia can result in devastating tornado in the Hindu Kush. Astrological signs combine with stellar configurations like the Centaur to invoke fate, and underline the artist’s inability to solve the enigmas of existence. Nel’s childhood was spent in Alberton, a soulless, parochial, Reef town where strict conformism was de rigeur. The artist, a self-proclaimed ‘limp-wristed moffie’, was raised by a homophobic father who vainly attempted to transform Nel into a virile Afrikaans mansmens.

Slip addresses chance, the random, and the arbitrariness of life in a universe governed by chaos theory where a butterfly fluttering its wings in Patagonia can result in devastating tornado in the Hindu Kush

Trauma inevitably resulted, and Nel became guileful and devious, leading a double life merely to survive. Memoriam with its goose with lance-like bars impaled in its plumage and beak and the figure of an unknown man looming behind it, would seem to express this sense of persecution and victimhood, though Nel places a very different interpretation upon it. Despite his problems, Nel presents an indestructibly resilient persona. He is a buoyant, twinkly-eyed soul, a gifted raconteur of spicy yarns with a mischievous wit that immediately endears him to everyone. Something of his raffish sass informs Fisticuffs, his portrait of Nelson, which was actually modelled on photographs of the young Laurence Olivier, effortlessly assuming the role of this haughty, aristocratic grandee, oozing wealth and privilege. However, his swaggering braggadocio is undermined by the blood dripping out his upturned patrician nose, suggesting that perhaps this august national hero harboured a penchant for rough trade.

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