Plates and bowls, old and new
Stevenson Cape Town
10 December 2020 - 23 January 2021
For Hylton Nel, there is no colour, shape, glaze or decoration that is incidental or without significance. There is always a reference in the history of art and the decorative arts which starts a conversation with him, some aspect of some object that his curiosity and lifelong spirit of enquiry then transmutes into his own work. Many of his references and interests, spanning thousands of years of creativity, may be lost on us because we often do not have the visual language to converse with the subtle considerations that consume Nel and artists in the ancient traditions of pottery and ceramics. We may admire them with the aesthetic sensibilities of our contemporary times but invariably we are only seeing an aspect, a layer, a consideration of the piece that Nel is seeing. One becomes very aware of this whenever new works arrive at the gallery, and we call him to share our thoughts and hear his, and one ends the conversation amused and in awe of his descriptions of the works, which we glimpse but do not see...
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His inspiration, as he explains, is a sequence of inspirations. ‘From an existing piece, historic or mine, a new shape or pattern or colour inspires me. It could be an Imari plate from a good period, late 17th or early 18th-century with a blue outside and the iron-red and gold in addition to the blue on the inside, and a small Ming period peasant bowl with a blue outside and blue-and-white inside. I find little aspects of somethings able to seed another whole batch of things.’ Integral to his creative impulses is his own collection of ceramics, both Oriental and European. It is a scholar’s collection in that there are some things he finds quite ugly or not wholly beautiful but they may have some corner or some patch which has some significance that can be a source of inspiration. ‘They all have some use for me – from different periods of Chinese stuff I have mostly very humble examples of stuff, or shards, which is sufficient to synthesise and get something out.’
In this sense Nel speaks of trying to make work that comes as naturally as drinking a cup of tea. ‘I am trying to get my ceramics to be like part of life, a gesture, like sitting down on a chair, or setting a table or frying an egg. What seems natural is what I am trying for, or in other words, the idea of things which are born not made is something I think about quite often. That is what I see in a lot of the ceramics that I admire – they seem just to be – so I try to make things that are just there. The fact that I use the things that I make every day helps me to anchor it in reality. It is not in our culture in this country to go and buy regional ceramics made by a local potter because machines and factories have taken over. For me it is important to make things that are real and that would continue to be real.’
The alchemy that occurs in firing ceramics is revered by Nel because the outcome is always a surprise, even after 50 years of constantly experimenting with clays and glazes and temperatures. As he says, ‘I am thrilled every time I get something out the kiln and then after a very short time I think what was that about?! It is like sex – you can have sex, a one night stand, a lovely lovely lovely oh fuck… Then sometimes years later I look at old work and am delighted to see it and think it is a pity I cannot do it anymore!’ As a result, he started gathering an archive and collection of his own work which also serves as constant prompts in his creative process. The alchemy of any firing means that at times he turns his own works into shards because they are not real in his eyes and do not have the quiet presence that gives them a reason to be in the world. He has learnt that at the time of firing his emotions are too volatile to trust and now he leaves them to stand around until they assure him of their dignity.