Hobby Heroes – Yvette Greslé
In Hobby Heroes Luan Nel appropriates the miniscule plastic figures from specialist train set kits, so beloved of the Hobbyists for whom trains, and anything to do with them, are a life-sustaining passion. He stages these surprisingly idiosyncratic figures, ranging from punks to boy scouts, in a number of curious situations. Against pristine white backgrounds, ranging in size from the monumental to the miniature, groups of figures ski imaginary mountain slopes, sun themselves in deck chairs, ice skate and ballroom dance. In Soveel an accordionist plays a tune for an absent audience while a blonde in a pink dress photographs what is some unknown scene a vast, intriguing distance from him. In the camp Skeer, a man dressed in a monk’s tunic shaves his chin. In some works the background is not white but an intense shade of red, yellow, blue or green. In Two Houses Down but Across the Road a lone fireman attempts to out out an overwhelmingly red fire with his canary yellow hose. In Grassny, Nel evokes the endless theatre of suburban lawn-mowing and in the humorous The Lesbians that Saved My Life a pair of women sunbathe nude against a hot yellow beach.
Nel’s work to date suggests a particular fascination with found objects, installation and scale, particularly evident in the ubiquitous miniatures of figures and landscapes painted onto objects, surfaces and canvases of varied proportions. In Lumps of Metal (1995), he appropriated discarded metal objects from a Johannesburg factory rented by his father. The surfaces of these objects or toys, as he playfully calls them, were embellished with little landscapes and figures, weighted with personal significance. In Lost (1998), he painted a series of tiny figures in landscapes, varying from snowy surfaces to beaches, along the skirting board of an empty, whitewashed, seemingly anonymous exhibition space. In Hobby Heroes, Nel pastes his teeny found objects onto canvasses that are overwhelmingly large in the work titled, The Way the World is Made, he contrives a cluster of men resembling Ken dolls in black and grey suits. They stand around in a variety of stock positions: one stands with his arms folded, his legs apart; another scratches his chin, apparently deep in thought contemplating something either terribly important or absolutely trivial. In front and at the centre two of the men shake hands. A small distance from them a photographer with a long lens camera considers the photograph he is about to take. Are they world leaders, businessmen surrounded by advisors or bodyguards? Is this perhaps some momentous or innocuous moment in the history of the world? In front and surrounding this group of apparently important little men is an infinite white canvas-landscape through which the viewer can imagine a variety of narrative possibilities.
Similarly to earlier shows, such as Lumps of Metal, Lost, Paper (1997) and Still Life (2003) Hobby Heroes veils the gravitas of the themes that Nel engages behind whimsical, light-hearted and camp images. In the act of speaking about his work, Nel will persistently link particular imagery to stories and anecdotes about his part. He often tells of his experience of being gay and Afrikaans in Apartheid South Africa, growing up in Alberton, a suburb south of Johannesburg, and the trauma of losing his father. In Paper, for example, he painted irreverent miniatures of landscapes and figures literally into paper accumulated throughout his life – from army call up papers from the Apartheid era to torn pages from Dutch Reformed Church Sunday school handbooks oppressively instructing children about the so-called unnatural state of homosexuality. In Still Life his oils and watercolours of beautiful and sometimes quirky images of objects situated in vast coloured backgrounds are weighted with private associations and memories, birth funny and sad. A work titled The Golden Girl depicts a beautiful bronze Art Deco figurine whose lost leg alludes to the trauma of a personal experience. In the Smoke series Nel’s cigarette butts to the vanitas imagery of Dutch still-life traditions sharp reminders of mortality and the transience of the human condition.
In Hobby Heroes Nel evokes the avocations of hobbyists who, for a variety of reasons, escape into an imaginative world, removed from the rhythm and difficulties of everyday life. He toys ironically with the idea of ‘boys toys’ and of adult men playing with train kits in the garage or den – the Heroes of fictitious, private little worlds of their own making – and attached a sadness to the impulse to lose oneself in a hobby. In collecting and reconfiguring the train set figures in a variety of situations and social interactions, Nel immerses himself in the pleasure and fantasy of hobby. Paradoxically, however, this immersion is not one of innocents and happy escape. Many of the scenarios he stages, in the isolation of his studio, become inflicted with nostalgia and memories of past experiences. Two Houses Down but Across the Road evokes an unforgettable childhood memory. In Die Kombi, Nel constructs a memory of a childhood holiday that never happened. With characteristic irony he stages an idyllic seaside holiday in 1970s South Africa where on a pristine beach, noticeably, only white men and women sunbathe, stroll and engage each other in conversation. In a quirky detail an incongruous fly fisherman, in the bottom right hand side, throws his rod towards the edge of the picture plane.
The show is clearly inflected with the themes of masculinity and same-sex desire that have dominated much of Nel’s work. In Die Familie Foto, the photographer focuses his lens, not on ‘the family’ as a whole, but on the two young boys who stand slightly off-centre on the right hand side. In many of the works, Nel mixes figures from seemingly unrelated contexts in order to create suggestive tableaus. In The Boys Again a pair of skinheads ambiguously wrestle or embrace (we are not sure) while soldiers on motorbikes speed towards them. If you look closely you will notice the carefully contrived subtexts of many of the tension-laden scenarios that Nel stages. The Boys Again alludes to the policing of sexuality and the threat that has been historically attached to the acting out of sexual desires and preferences that unsettle heteronormative conceptions of the world.
In Hobby Heroes the scenarios that Nel stages are theatrical and intriguing puzzles. The spatial configurations of figures in relation to one another; the emotional tensions and psycho-social dramas suggested by their activated and interactions (or lack thereof); and their relationship to the blank areas that surround them activated our curiosity inviting us to participate in an interpretative game of infinite possibilities.
Text by Yvette Greslé, 2005