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Review: Painter Daniel Nel’s Latest Show at Smith Gallery

Daniel Nel explores the tensions of the everyday in ‘Once Removed’, his recent exhibition of paintings at Cape Town's Smith Gallery.

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Daniel Nel | House and Leisure
'Somewhere To Go' by Daniel Nel.

 

There is something to be said about the mundane and its capacity to help us better understand the world around us. In Once Removed, Daniel Nel’s solo exhibition at Smith Gallery, the Cape Town-based painter fixes an understated yet inquisitive eye on these mundane moments, salvaged from the reaches of the internet and reworked through his signature monochromatic brushstrokes. 

Daniel Nel | House and Leisure
'Far Away' by Daniel Nel.
Daniel Nel | House and Leisure
'Foyer' by Daniel Nel.

 

The images in Once Removed are, to quote from the exhibition statement, both 'unremarkable' and 'quotidian' scenes. They are the ordinary, seemingly uninspired thoughts and actions we experience in the everyday. You will see images of people lying in their beds, scrolling through their phones, and you will see lone figures moving through empty, glass foyers populated with decorative plants. There are portraits of people in their rooms, sometimes facing you and other times not, but always surrounded by the various objects and artefacts that can help to gain a better understanding of who, or what, it is we are looking at. 

As ordinary as these scenes may appear to be, they are also highly personal images, and it’s this element of Nel’s body of work that is perhaps the most interesting. Rather than being a witness to the original images – an observer who exists in the room somewhere just out of frame or perhaps even behind it – the images used in Once Removed are as foreign to Nel as they are to their audience. It was by browsing through Google, Tumblr, Instagram and YouTube that Nel sourced the reference images for his painted works.  

'I think each image leads to the next one,' says Nel. 'There is always an initial image, which could get chosen for any reason – sometimes just purely aesthetic. Then, while painting that image, I begin to think about its connotations and wonder why it had an appeal.' 

Daniel Nel | House and Leisure
'Neighbours' by Daniel Nel.

 

It can be easy to view Nel’s practice in this regard as being a voyeuristic one. Paintings such as ‘Neighbours’, a mesmeric work full of strong lines and distant figures, speak strongly to the idea of the painter as a curious but distant viewer. But Nel has long been grappling with the ideas of emphasis and recontextualisation in his work. While he has dwelt largely on sparse, architecturally driven scenes in many of his previous works, overall, his focus on the translation that takes place when a pre-existing image becomes painted is something of a key interest. 

Daniel Nel | House and Leisure
'Scroll' by Daniel Nel.

 

Now, with the move to portraiture in Once Removed, he is once again interested in space, albeit how it influences certain modes of behaviour. The work ‘Scroll’ is a good example of this. Comprised of a lone figure scrolling through a smartphone, the painting is tightly composed (something similar to the cropping we’re used to seeing on an Instagram post) and draws the eye downwards to a human shadow cast on a table. In this way, the shadow becomes the interactive element in the environment of ‘Scroll’ while the individual himself remains fixed to his own screen, disengaged from the external world and possibly from the audience’s own gaze.

Intimacy, distance, and the presence of gadgetry in these works can be a comment on our own connections and disconnections with the world around us through our preoccupations with social media and technology, but it is also a nod to Nel’s process of creating these works in the first place. 'The city and the internet have shown us that we live in spaces which, while grouping us together, also cut us off from one another to an extent, but still allow us to look into each other’s lives,' he says. 'So, I have explored this possibility with these works by exploring peoples’ personal but public archives online and also trying to record some of the glimpses I was offered into other people’s lives while being in the city to make these images.'

Sprawling cities, student bedrooms, shopfronts, or an apartment interior glimpsed from the street below. These are the spaces that exist in the contemporary – through technology and our own longstanding curiosities about the world around us – as simultaneously public and private spaces, wrestling between distance and intimacy. Through Nel’s reworking of these scenes, they become bustling constellations made up of lone satellites, always connected yet curiously detached. Finally, Nel’s work could serve as a gentle reminder that, even though we have more ways of viewing and engaging with the people and places around us than ever before, it is this same tangle of possible connections with the world around us that can keep us from properly engaging with it in the first place. 

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Daniel Nel | House and Leisure
'Windowshopper' by Daniel Nel.