FAVOURING PLAY OVER PERFECTION, AND IMPROVISATION
CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICAN ARTIST | ARTIST WRITE-UP | CLAY
Hylton Nel | When Will Those Thieves Get to Prison? | 2019 | Glazed Ceramic Stoneware | 42cm (h)
This playful tension between concept and form has become a hallmark of Nel’s work. It is a kind of refined frivolity, a decorative practicality that characterises his pieces.
BY DAVID MANN
Hylton Nel photographed at home in Wesoewer, Calitzdorp | Image by Mario Todeschini
Hylton Nel is most at home in the outskirts. While his work is known in major cities the world-over – London, Dublin, Toronto, New York – it is in the outskirts of Calitzdorp, in the Karoo, where he lives and works.
Small towns and cities are dotted throughout the life and career of the renowned ceramicist. They are steady geographic markers of his practice. It was in the Northern Cape’s Kimberly, where Nel went to school, that he worked with clay for the first time. Later, in Makhanda, he began to experiment with the material in earnest, studying towards a fine art degree at Rhodes University, where he gained an appreciation for Greek and Chinese ceramic art. It was also in Makhanda that he met the local potter Jürgen Hamberger and spent much of his free time playing around with form and technique in Hamberger’s studio.
Hylton Nel | The Vase with the Red Nipples | 2016 | Glazed Ceramic Stoneware
19.5 x 23.5 x 11.5cm
A view of Hylton Nel’s Home in Wesoewer, Calitzdorp | Image by Mario Todeschini
Nel’s Home | Image by Mario Todeschini
Excerpt from Nel’s Diary
Hylton Nel | Cat with Pope’s Shoes | 2013 | Glazed Ceramic Stoneware | 42cm (h)
From there, a few seasons abroad – studying further in Antwerp – was followed by some city living back in South Africa – Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Stellenbosch – exhibiting here and there alongside his work as a fine art lecturer at the local universities. In 1991, Nel packs up and heads out to the cattle farming town of Bethulie in the Free State, working prolifically and eventually becoming a mentor to the late ceramic artist Nico Masemola. Finally, in 2002, he once again digs up his roots and settles in Calitzdorp where he’s been working for the past two decades.
Why this potted history? Because there’s something to be said about Nel’s penchant for seeking out far-flung spaces, about his ability to withdraw from the clamour of the world and find a quiet space from which to work through the material of life – the people, poetry, politics, sex, comedy and tragedy that charge his work.
Clay, Nel has said, is simply a means to give his ideas form. The primary concern lies always with the impulse behind the form. Plates, pots, bowls, vases and figurative pieces are the forms that most-often emerge, while the visual and textual materials he ascribes to them range from prose and news headlines to cats, sphinxes, penises, self-portraiture and whatever popular culture he tends to engage with at the time (‘The History Boys by Allan Bennett’ reads a glazed ceramic piece from 2008, ‘What a lovely film!’).
Hylton Nel | The History Boys | 2008
'There’s something to be said about his ability to withdraw from the clamour of the world and find a quiet space from which to work through the material of life – the people, poetry, politics, sex, comedy and
tragedy that charge his work.'
The mischief and eccentricity of Nel’s work is rooted in a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, the history of ceramic art. Nods to Delftware, Staffordshire figurines, and Greek and Etruscan pottery can be seen in his work, while his interest in Chinese ceramics has informed a great deal of his conceptual approach to ceramics: “But, the other thing – from let’s say Chinese ceramics, let’s keep it simple – is that Imperial vases, however perfectly formed they were, were meant to be both looked at and to be used, and I find that that makes sense,” he tells Michael Stevenson in a 2003 interview.
While the local art market deems Nel’s work a little too valuable and therefore a little too precious to be put to work, for Nel, there is little to be gained in revering a work of art. This sentiment factors into his process, too. He favours play over perfection, improvisation over precision. This playful tension between concept and form has become a hallmark of Nel’s work. It is a kind of refined frivolity, a decorative practicality that characterises his pieces.
Hylton Nel | Red Cat Twin Vase | 2010 | Glazed Ceramic Stoneware | 20 x 14cm
'Clay, Nel has said, is simply a means to give his ideas form. The primary concern lies always with the impulse behind the form.'
The brilliance of Nel’s work is in its materiality. Naturally, it is the surfaces of his pieces that are immediately recognisable – rooted as they are in literature, history, mythology, eroticism and memoir – but it is in the form where Nel exercises his quiet humility, practicality, and respect for the possibility of clay.
Hylton Nel Plate | 1990 | 25cm
All images courtesy of Hylton Nel & Mario Todeschini
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