Art with a view of the city

Visiting the site of Luan Nel’s Centre is like watching an old silent movie (in technicolour) at the Top Star drive-in. Giant, flickering images — many of them bucolic in mood — are painted on “screens” of concrete walls against an urban skyline (see picture) , which, at night, frames the narratives in a surreal, neon glow.

Situated in a disused parking garage above the Carlton skyrink — literally the centrepoint of the city of Johannesburg — Nel’s work, particularly in the context of this show, is partly about the rejuvenation of “forgotten walls” and the resuscitation of seemingly dead spaces and surfaces. But it serves less of an architectural or social function than an idiosyncratic, poetic role.

Admirers of Nel’s work, seasoned to his trademark pastoral miniatures painted on industrial objects, might be bemused by the enlargement of his work for this exhibition. But in many respects his expanded “horizons” point merely to a shift in format, not focus, with concrete walls transformed into canvases and the city serving both as an impromptu lighting system and active participant in the show.

“Conventional paintings on canvases seem so restricting. They become prescribed and constrained by their formats,” Nel explains. “I need a much more evocative base.”

Rooted in the genre of landscape, his paintings, with their almost Roccoco-like delicacy, are often described as whimsical, nostalgic and unashamedly sentimental. These are epithets Nel accepts, even welcomes, yet he is at pains to point out that he is essentially an “urban artist”.

And looking at his bucolic imagery, juxtaposed against gritty backdrops, it is simplistic to interpret his work as a symptom of post-industrial romanticism or as a cultural anachronism in the context of an era which holds the act of painting and the genre of narrative landscape in equal contempt. Nel clearly revels and excels in both — just as he does in concepts of beauty. Yet his work does not sit comfortably within any of these traditions.

“Because I usually paint on found objects — although I prefer not to call them “found”, because I specifically select them or they are chosen for me — I suppose it would be easy for people to presume that I have chosen the tools of the conceptualist in order to get away with my painterly indulgences.”

But even though they clearly straddle a post-modernist sensibility, Nel’s paintings on objects appear anything but exercises in cultural expediency. They also seem to focus more on metaphoric matters than formal concerns.

“Sure, the surfaces of the objects are seductive, especially since oil paint works well on metal. But without knowing much about their traditional contexts or functions, I am drawn more to their rawness and their erotic connotations. And the smallness of the paintings against the industrial objects forces one to look closer at them.

“But don’t ask me to explain my intentions. They usually emerge afterwards and even then are difficult to articulate.”

Nel’s split-level, suburban studio — soon to be the venue for “alternative” exhibitions organised by The Project Room — serves as a shrine to both rustic and urban design. His “Centre studies” — small paintings hanging like rectangular projectiles from the walls — can be read as painterly maquettes for the exhibition works.

Although painstakingly conceptualised, they are given loose, poetic titles which serve as imaginative launching pads rather than descriptions of the works. And although his imagery, derived from newspaper clippings and picture books, conveys a sense of serenity, his latest studies — particularly four “portraits” of friends who recently died, and the first of his cityscapes — are executed in loose, almost angry strokes.

It is this strange combination of the material and the ephemeral, serenity and passion, accessibility and displacement, which makes Nel’s work so ineluctably compelling.

Behind his studio is the first of the murals which form the basis of the Centre exhibition. Seeming to come straight from the pages of a Boy’s Own annual, it comprises a group of sailors throwing their caps skywards during what is presumably a passing-out parade.

Painted on an outside concrete wall, when it is viewed against a night sky, there is something exhilarating yet terribly poignant about this work. It is not just about the rejuvenation of forgotten walls. It is a portrait of memory and desire, and the poetry of the imagination set within an urban sensibility.

Centre is on view for one night only on May 4, from 7pm,on the sixth floor of the Carlton Centre parking garage. The exhibition also features music created on computer by Craigie Guru and Jay Jay Fonzo, under the rubric of Galactic Gigalos.

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