Margaret Nel The Outsider | Art.co.za | Art in South Africa
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The Outsider

Nel's early work, completed between 1970 and 1976, are characterised by the use of the abstracted figure as a means to suggest the effects of societal isolation, emotional withdrawal and mental debilitation.

Nel's early body of work was primarily shaped by three sources of influence, both of which were current at the time of her student training and early professional career - Francis Bacon and Peter Blake's response to British post-war existentialism; the emergence in the 1960s of Nouvelle Figuration as a reaction to American Pop Art, abstraction and Nouveau Réalisme (best exemplified by the work of R.B. Kitaj); and Hard Edge abstraction.

Her early themes focused on anatomically distorted groups of figures, typically occupying shaped canvases and frequently featuring athletes derived from newspaper clippings of runners captured mid-event. Hands and feet cropped, these figures became visceral and anonymous, and symbolic of the human instinct of pushing aside others for personal position.

Nel soon moved away from the Hard Edge tendency with her inclusion, and eventually focus on, distorted facial features and hands. With the completion of Tea Time I in 1971 and Mrs A in 1974, both of which won her early critical acclaim, it became evident that the abstracted figure would remain a primary vehicle for Nel to express themes of psychological distress, societal isolation, emotional withdrawal and mental debilitation.

These silent, nameless players are forever caught at the margins of relevance, in a no-man's land of their own - and others - construction.

In certain works, there is the inference of a social invitation, the terms of which are unclear, or perhaps even threatening. With eyes often voided, the figures' distorted facial features suggest an inward world that can never be fully disclosed, the subject rendered ultimately unknowable.


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