Margaret Nel is an artist working in Pretoria, South Africa, since 1974. Her work is housed in numerous public, private and corporate collections, and has been represented in various group and solo exhibitions.
Her early work was largely shaped by the late Pop movement upon which she entered as a student and young professional artist, with Hard Edge, the Nouvelle Figuration group, and the British strain of the Movement having a major impact on her - the early portraiture of Hockney and Blake, and the disjointed figuration of Ronald Kitaj and Francis Bacon being notable influences. Nel’s 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 of, and eventually focus on, distorted facial features and hands, garnering her early critical acclaim. With the completion of Mrs A in 1974, it became evident that the figure would remain a primary vehicle for Nel to express themes of psychological distress and isolation.
In the late 1980s, Nel’s work intuitively moved towards Postmodernism, with more complex compositions and an emphasis on iconoclasm and multiple readings of her work. The loss of individual control became a dominant theme during this decade. With the simultaneous sudden tide of emigration from South Africa, Nel’s work focused on the theme of exodus and failed flight, and the notion of inadequate physical and emotional preparation. Global concerns regarding environmental abuse led Nel’s work to explore the a lack of environmental sustenance, which for her also symbolised a lack of emotional sustenance.
Post-2000, Nel’s work became increasingly concerned with the idea of loss of personal control in relation to random violence, which remains a psychological preoccupation in South Africa. The effects of such mental debilitation, and the resultant loss of identity, has led her to explore the figure in over life-size proportions, with a particular interest in exposed skin.
Nel’s current work focuses on the notion of physical and emotional preservation and decay, with enlarged renderings of meat and more recently, highly processed confectionary, encased in plastic or styrofoam. The glace frosting and piped cream are highly visceral and sexual - both inviting and repulsive, inedible. In certain works, Nel explores the items before and after decay sets in, calling to mind the preoccupation with female identity via sexuality, the inevitable process of ageing and final exclusion of the aged individual from society.