Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Nel, Gideon - VM - Ydi Coetsee Carstens

Gideon Nel: Die Saaier, 136 (The Sower, 136)
‘A Visual Parable’
by Ydi Coetsee Carstens
In this large painting by South African artist Gideon Nel, each form is lovingly selected, each hue considered, every reference deeply meaningful. This is evident in all of Nel’s work, and particularly this work, titled in Afrikaans Die Saaier, 136 (The Sower, 136). Resembling a screen print, the painting is in fact acrylic on canvas, drawn free hand and carefully painted with a brush. The border is painted in white acrylic. Seen up close, the brushwork is evident, which allows one to imagine the artist meticulously colouring each plane to its utmost edge.
In a recent essay, the American theologian, Wesley Vander Lugt, writes that “abstract art affirms the goodness of God’s material world and our embodied experiences within it … Those who believe that God in Christ became flesh and embraced this material world for our salvation should be quick to affirm incarnational forms of artistry.”
Incarnational art, like this work, asks to be experienced with the whole body. I was reminded of this when I first saw The Sower, 136 in person. Unlike an AI generated image, this image breathes materiality. Where the artist’s  brush meets canvas like this, a visual song is heard. It invites the viewer to sing along, to playfully discover the layered significance of the work, or simply enjoy its visual unity. It involves a give and take between viewer and artist which artificially generated artworks cannot replicate.
One playful discovery to be made in Nel’s painting is the reference to Vincent van Gogh’s The Sower, painted in 1888, and now part of the Emil Bührle Collection in Zürich, Switzerland.
Nel explained to me that during Lent of this year he and a friend read and reflected on the Parable of the Sower found in Mark 4:1–20, each week discussing a section of the passage over the phone. He had also begun contemplating Van Gogh’s work, particularly the artist’s ability to create resonance through colour. “It was through artists like Vincent van Gogh and James Turell, among others, that I learned what it means to develop a ‘depth of insight’ into colour.” “If you position colours in a certain way, they become luminous.” The same resonance reveals itself in the contemplation of a parable like that of the sower.
Taking Van Gogh’s composition as central motif, Nel divides the main part of the canvas into four quadrants, placed within an arch. Arches are globally associated with hallowed or sacred spaces, and often occur in Nel’s work.
The four quadrants, he explains, represent the four scenarios in Jesus’s Parable of the Sower. The bird in the yellow quadrant refers to the birds pecking at the seeds, the green block below it to those that sprout quickly but then wither, and the bottom right quadrant to the seeds that are strangled by weeds. Only the fourth quadrant, the largest of the four in the top right part of the arch, shows the seed having grown tall and bearing fruit.
Birds, roads, weeds and fruit. Trained in visual communication design, Nel sees his forms, symbols and colours as the development of a visual language. “It is playful,” he explains, “abstract, melodic. I view some of these forms as letters in an alphabet, the building blocks of a poetic visual language.”
Abstract art, or perhaps all art, comes to us clothed in riddles. So yes, it is a language, but it is a cryptic one. Like a parable, it reveals and conceals, communicates and withholds. Jesus’s disciples asked, “What does this mean?” and, “What is the Kingdom of God like?” So too, I had to ask Nel what his painting meant. By interacting with the maker I could unravel more of its meaning. And only inasmuch as the artist chose to reveal this meaning to me.
“What does the brown shape at the bottom mean?” I ask. “Is it perhaps a casket?”
“It is the boat in which Jesus sits when he is teaching his parable of the sower”, he answers. Nel, I later reflect, is contemplating not only Jesus’s parable, but Jesus himself, and his historic reality, without which we cannot take his teaching seriously.
The artist seems to ask: Who is this man that stands in time and place, in history, yet stands “outside of the frame,” in cosmic reality? He reveals himself in the first century Middle East, but his parable reaches into Van Gogh’s Provence, 136 years ago (the number in Nel’s title), and into the 21st century, into an art gallery in Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa.
In him, the ancient and future alphabets converge. He is the cosmic Word who writes the past, present and future into a vibrant poem full of wisdom and love. “Abstract art,” Vander Lugt writes, “points to the great mystery of God’s being and our own that is beyond description and representation. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us, but that same enfleshed Word is before all things and holds all things together.”
Gideon Nel, Die Saaier, 136  (The Sower, 136), acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm.
Gideon Nel (b. 1992) is a South African artist, designer and lecturer based in Cape Town, South Africa. As a graphic designer and illustrator, he has worked on various projects across South Africa and has also lectured at Stellenbosch Academy of Design & Photography and Greenside Design Center in Johannesburg. In 2021, he completed an MA degree in Information Design at the University of Pretoria. His MA dissertation offers a philosophical hermeneutic of visual communication by exploring the connections between design and the metaphysics of contemporary Irish philosopher, William Desmond. Currently Gideon is a full-time artist with a studio at 196 Victoria Road, Woodstock, Cape Town. In April 2024 at this location, in collaboration with Jotam Schoeman, he opened an exhibition titled KRIPTAAL, showcasing original acrylic paintings and prints with each contemplating through their unique styles the mystery of the cosmos. Gideon’s work, as an artist and teacher, explores the intersections between art, theology, psychology and philosophy.
Ydi Coetsee Carstens (b.1990) is a South African artist with oil painting as main discipline. In 2015 she obtained her MA in Fine Arts at Stellenbosch University with an exchange component in Kampala, Uganda in East Africa. Growing up in the Uniting Reformed Church where her father was a minister during Apartheid played a big role in her upbringing. Her current practice is focused on figurative painting, but she also writes regularly for KRUX, a Christian study centre in Stellenbosch, where she is based. Her work reflects primarily on faith, place and material culture in the context of Africa's entanglement with the West. She had her first solo exhibition Bly/Stay in 2018 and her second in 2022. She was a Top 40 finalist in the SA Sanlam Portrait Awards in 2017 and 2023.
ArtWay Visual Meditation 26 May 2024