Field 2 (2013) Oil Paint on Canvas. 600 x 1200mm

Art | Painting as a form of understanding: A Q&A with Daniel Mark Nel

Interview by Ja. Team
Artworks by
Daniel Mark Nel

How do you approach painting?

For me each painting is an attempt to explore the ideas in my head at the time while/by translating them into a visual language. At the same time each painting is an effort to grow and nurture a relationship I have with an elusive process involving a group of tools and materials. These two intentions are linked because for me a painting feels successful when it has managed to reconcile an idea with a way of using paint. I feel that each attempt at painting is also an attempt to get into a way of being or doing where different types of behaviour meet each other in a harmonious way. Like it’s a mixture between memorised actions, intuitive actions and considered actions.

Seapoint (2016) Oils on Board 400x200m

Do you plan works beforehand or figure them out as you go?

For a long time I have been at a point with painting where each work is approached with almost no planning. My friend and the person who mentored me at UCKAR, Tanya Poole, who I admire so much and am so grateful to know, once told me I had a mercurial approach which I think was a nice way of saying that I’m super undecided with what and how I want to paint, and how quickly an idea I’m interested in will last. I do spend a lot of time looking for reference material which mostly comes from screen grabs while on the internet or from images I take on my phone. I spend a lot of time looking through these images and often one of them will spark an idea for a painting. I often struggle to trust in an approach where I can like see the finished work in my head before its done because I often find those paintings difficult to execute. I think this is because works often end up being successful for unpremeditated reasons. There is always a moment where I think ‘this isn’t working out how I planned’ and I need to get good at letting my dream for something go quite early on. Each process is a conversation between me and an image which mostly feels unsteady, fragile, hot and cold, and precarious. There are moments of hope, loss, nostalgia, risk, blunder and misperception. There are sudden moments of sight. Mistakes often end up being a works savior. I have to accept walking away most days with a feeling of failure. I’m grateful for moments, usually a long time after the work is complete, where I see it again and think — ok that work I made then just kinda hit me in a real way the same as any artwork or life experience might.

Left to right: pages 2 (2013) Oils on Canvas 1000x700mm and Planes (2013) Oils on Canvas 1200x1780mm

What are you trying to achieve with painting?

At this moment, my work is in a transitional phase and so conceptually things are beginning to take a shift. But at the most basic level I’m trying to reach people who look at my paintings in a pre-thought kind of way, at least initially. I’m also trying to use painting as a way of understanding life, not just the world, but of approaching the question of being human. Conceptually though, what I have been trying to achieve in the last few years is around a number of preoccupations which may look disparate but to me they all seem linked. Maybe I have been trying to find a way of visually exploring the connections between them. I’ll write them in a list because this format lends itself to collage better than a paragraph.

  • Memory and forgetting in personal and collective terms. Remembering as reconstructing. What does it mean to forget? If something gets forgotten has it disappeared?
  • The various spaces which act as containers and organisers of data and memory (brain/page/hard drive/shelf/archive/space in general), and the various forms in which data and memory exist (writing/images/sounds/biological memory/film/physical matter).
  • Objects and beings as (amongst so much else) complex porous data containers navigating space in ways that relate to that data. The ‘space between’ a person and their environment.
  • The impact of spaces/objects/ideas on people.
  • The experience of moving through space. The way form, light, people, volume and so on affect feelings and thoughts.
  • Ideas as unseen beings/objects.
  • The question of representing the invisible.
  • The organisation of people through invisible/semi visible things like ideas/heirarchy.
  • The data contained by empty spaces in a physical and symbolic sense.
  • Different understandings/versions of space — dreamed space, emotional space, mental space, cyberspace, “real” space.

I don’t think I would be able to extract all of these ideas from a single work. I can’t really even be that sure if these are the things I’m trying to communicate through my work, or that these things are even evident in the works. I’m only sure that these kinds of ideas feel prevalent in the way I look at the world, and painting for me is very related to honing in on a way of seeing.

Left to right: Bush Scan (2016) Oils on Masonite 600x420mm and Easterly (2015) Oils on Board 250x250mm
Left to right: Fall (2016) Oil on Board 400x500mm and Luke as A Child (2016) Oils on masonite 600 x 420mm

Do you think contemporary painting exists and what would you say makes a painting contemporary?

I’m actually not such a fan of that term but I would say that it broadly encompasses anything being made now, although a lot of what gets made now could have been made whenever if you were to tell just by looking at it. Then there are paintings that look, for some other reason, current. After that there are other paintings which don’t just look current but look like they have managed to somehow take what’s happening now and tweak it. This third area of images feels most interesting to me. For me this is because those kinds of paintings managed to alert me or pull me into a strange and recontextualised version of the world now, where something gets looked at in a different way than usual. Like one of the ways I think about a successful painter is as somebody who has mastered the art of processing inputs to produce strange outputs through a particular set of activities, like better versions of what google did with those hallucinations.

Field 1 (2013) Oil Paint on Canvas. 80 x 130cm

How do you see yourself in relation to what you do in the context of South Africa in 2017?

It often causes me anxiety to think about ways I might be able to be more helpful in the world as a white man than by making paintings. I’m also really aware of, and frightened by, the violence I commit on a daily basis just by being a cis gendered heterosexual white man. The fact that I make art in a context where my body mediates my experience and therefore my observations seems scary at times. I often think about how artmaking, although difficult, is such a privileged luxury and how it shouldn’t be that way. I think it’s important to try and use your skill to hopefully improve the lives of everybody around you in ways which don’t produce knock-on violence. It’s also hard to discern the potential violence of ostensibly transformative/developmental projects coming from the top down. In the end, I think that pursuing creativity is meaningful, and if you are given an opportunity to do this, then no matter who you are, that opportunity should be taken and honored by being careful about what you choose to make. I’m still in an anxious process of defining that for myself.

Field5 (2012) Oils on Board 800x600mm
Flux (2012) Oils on Canvas 1200x650mm
Left to right: Magic Staircase (2016) Oil on Board 250x250mm and Holding On (2016) Guache on Board 400x400mm
Lot (2012)Oils on Board 1300x700mm

Daniel Mark Nel studied fine art at UCKAR and graduated with distinction in 2013. Since then he’s exhibited in Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, PE, Antwerp and Berlin. He’s currently painting full time, with the support of Spier who buys enough of his work to fund his life and practice. Nel is working on a body of paintings for a solo show later in the year, and is looking for a gallery to host this. In addition to making paintings, he also makes music and forms part of the collective Quit Safari. He considers this work to be an expression of a similar world of ideas to the ones he explores visually.

This interview was first published in Edition 13 of a. magazine.