Hylton Nel: For Use and Display
Essay by Michael Stevenson
London: The Fine Art Society, 2017
If you are not familiar with South African ceramicist Hylton Nel, enjoy some basic background. Nel was born in Zambia and raised in Northern Cape, South Africa. Nel began sticking his hands in clay while enrolled at Rhodes University, Grahamstown. Later, he studied painting and ceramics at the Royal College of Art—Antwerp. Nel himself went on to teach at Port Elizabeth Technikon, Michaelis School of Fine Art, and Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape, maintaining his art practice all the while.
Nel is known for ‘idiosyncratic ceramics:’ pottery, figurines, and plaques with surfaces rooted in literature, music, art history, mythology, biblical history, personal and sexual experience and politics. It could not be more clear that Nel has a cultivated and active mind, he is a lover of all art. He locates relationships between his own ceramic/ painting focus and other mediums of expression. In a scrawling penmanship, he paints text quotations with almost slap-dash figurative line drawings to accompany.
In the vase ‘Man Fishing in the Deep Sea’, he scrawls a quotation from a Bessie Smith song and an image of a man fishing. On a series of vases called ‘Genesis’, Nel comically interprets the Old Testament story of Adam and the serpent—Adam’s naked butt in mid-air as he is flung about and strangled by the serpent. The brilliance is in the actuality of the object, the fine lines, patterns, form, the object becomes a treasure, replete of preciousness, with a form and a narrative grounded in humanity. Once you know Nel’s work, it is identifiable and yes, unforgettable. It could be that barely legible handwriting!
Many of the works in this catalog are vases. About vases Nel says:
“His aesthetic sensibility is one not only of usefulness but also of humility. His gestures are quiet and unassuming, and the forms are functional and respectful of the uses they may have. He talks beautifully of vases ‘that would be able to behave with dignity even if it had no flowers in, but when you put flowers in, it must not be shouting out about itself, it must be helping the flowers to do their thing. I think it is one of the more difficult things to make.'”—Michael Stevenson
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