Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Sylvia Hyman Fooling the Eye

Article by Susan DeMay


Sylvia HymanSylvia Hyman’s exploration of ordinary objects – recreated in clay – reveals to her captivated audiences a comprehensive selection of clay items that seem uncanningly real. Almost any ceramist attempting to invent new and unexpected trompe l’oeil options will soon discover that Hyman has likely already ventured there. The variety demonstrates a keen mind always in search of yet another subject for fooling the eye.

A 2005 exhibition in the art gallery of the Nashville Public Library of Hyman’s trompe l’oeil works in clay is astounding in many ways. Viewing them technically, the 25 works are so masterfully resolved that those visitors from the larger public who are unfamiliar with clay, or the nature of art in general, may simply walk on past another collection of artifacts. So completely fooled are they that they never even know that this assortment is not what it appears to be. Trompe l’oeil is a genre of art whose main goal is to recreate reality with artists’ materials with photographic realism. Examples can be found in both twodimensional and three-dimensional works. Earliest examples in painting are dated in the 1500s in Italy and in the next century in Northern Europe. Carefully constructed linear perspective or shallow picture planes explore how the sense of depth adds to the deception. In painting, a transitional image, such as a fly painted on the edge, is often employed to carry the eye into the illusionist scene.

In both the two-dimensional and three dimensional works, invisible execution is absolutely essential to the success of a trompe l’oeil work. The viewer must not be distracted by brushstrokes, tool marks or fingerprints. The deception occurs because the object is so skilfully produced that we are momentarily fooled. Hyman constructs an array of objects with this goal. Her techniques of form and surface are impeccable, fresh and never overworked.

Sylvia Hyman

This exhibit contains pieces spanning many years of work in this trompe l’oeil style. The viewer can marvel at subtle shifts of conceptual themes in this oeuvre and finds numerous repeated visual motifs. For example, earlier works comprise commonplace objects which are uniquely associated with the hand and these objects appear in several of these visual assemblages. In each of Still-life # 6 and Still-life # 9 the viewer finds imitations of hand-crafted wooden wall shelves and crocheted doilies (her clay versions of the two are as painstakingly crafted as the originals). We consider those hands intricately threading and stitching fine string with metal hooks and imagine other hands guiding saws through wooden planks. On top of the shelf/plank and doilies of the still-life series, we find the trivial stuff of our day-to-day lives.

In Still-life #9, we see coins, tags and keys which have been fingered, clutched and turned, no doubt through numerous transactions. In this piece and in Still-life # 6, hand-manipulated objects involve another type of less serious activity; game pieces such as dreidels and dice recall movements of spinning, shaking and tossing. The game pieces foretell the importance of the concept of ‘play’ in the later work. The appearance of an egg motif in this series alludes to the craft of decorating eggs and the careful handling and rolling needed to embellish them. As an artist, Hyman wants us to appreciate the abilities of the hand and, in doing that, we arrive at an appreciation for craft and for clay. She models, slabbuilds, rolls thin slabs into scrolls, textures and stamps the clay, extrudes and weaves clay coils, casts the clay slip, and treats the surface through painting, staining, sanding and screening. And yet the individual components are never overworked, and nearly all are manipulated and presented convincingly.

All of these works tantalise the viewer to reach out a hand to feel the verity of the labels purporting the medium to be clay. Previous exhibitions, understanding this impulse, have displayed signs reading ‘Please Touch Carefully’.

Sylvia HymanIn other works of this period, we find everyday objects involving intricate hand motions. Clay baskets are artfully woven, manila files are opened, paper sheets filed, organised and closed. Envelopes are opened, emptied, re-stuffed, and closed-up again. Rubber bands appear to be snapped into place on other documents which have been rolled to preserve important information. Even crumpled paper holds this same significant import and the essential importance of the hand is implied. Themes of hidden messages, obscured data and coded information are conceptual considerations in this work.

This aspect of Hyman’s work is understood by viewers, an understanding explained by clay artist and writer, Vince Pitelka: “This work is invested with content and meaning that sneaks up on you… and does so in ways that toy with concealment and secrecy, suggesting importance while rarely revealing specific meaning. Letters, scrolls, envelopes, blueprints, and sheet music are only partially revealed in boxes or baskets. They trigger significant memory and reflection catalysing meaning specific to each viewer, and thus become instantly personal.” (Ceramics: Art and Perception 56, Pitelka, 2004.) The artist herself talks about the importance of the idea of ‘concealed content’ in her work, the scrolls, fortune cookies, closed books, eggs, crumpled paper and envelopes that hide messages, encoded information and personal data. “Envelopes,” she stated in a public lecture at the Nashville Public Library, “seem to embody the essence of objects with concealed content”. These envelopes are a recurring image in the artist’s work. Such themes and concepts give Hyman’s work the depth of ideas that we seek in art but, for her, the work must also be visually interesting.

Sylvia HymanIn Bark Tub with Blue Prints, for example, we find a simple juxtaposition of rough wooden and smooth paper products. The contrast of the organic heavily textured and naturally coloured bark stands in stark opposition to the pristine white and blue elements of carefully rolled scrolls. The regularly spaced slats of the tub also contrast with the randomly placed and spaced tubular forms of the scrolls. These basic contrasting elements are at the heart of ‘visually interesting’ and give enjoyment to the engaged viewer. Another conceptual construct that recurs in her work is the relationship of ‘play’ to serious pursuit. In Practice, Practice, #2 we contemplate the focus required in playing music or playing ball. We know that repeating the same thing over and over gives better and more refined results.

Hyman shows us through her production how her works develop and how ideas multiply. Her ‘playing’ and experimenting with the material yields results, some immediately useable and some to be filed away to be developed later. We can only guess what new combinations she has in store for us. Her experiments also lead to new possibilities; infinite solutions propel the artist forward.

Humour is an essential part of ‘play’ and one can see in all of these works that the artist has a sense of humour. This quality is especially evident in the work entitled Tossed Cookies. In this piece, a cardboard tray of fortune cookies appear to be knocked over on top of a book entitled Clay Art, an iconographic image of the artist herself. The box appears to be covered with a foreign script which, incidentally, is not an East Asian calligraphy, and the cookies appear to have been randomly scattered when the open carton was tipped over. In searching for the meaning, one might ask which fortune would the chooser choose, and is that choice as random as the pile of cookies. The artist toys with us, and the title of the work makes us laugh. One could leave it at that, just a visual pun, but the artist wants us to know that her life as a clay artist was, in one way, just as random.

Sylvia HymanIn 1957, during her earliest professional years and after she had been teaching in public schools for 15 years, she was given some ceramic equipment. She seized upon the opportunity as one would select one fortune cookie over the others. This one moment in her life changed everything, as if the reading of a fortune cookie could reveal and effect a whole future for any one of us. She wishes us to know that any given opportunity and the future toward which it leads us can, in a sense, be in our hands.

Her works in this library exhibition have not abandoned earlier themes of hands manipulating objects. Fortune cookies are broken open and eaten, and little slips of paper balanced deftly on fingertips are read. Pencils and crayons are drawn and scribbled across papers of colouring books and puzzles. The ropes that are part of some arrangements are to be handled, curled, wound-up and tied. One envisions in other works that books are to be opened and held by hands that then turn their pages and later stacked as their owner finds the right place for each one. Another important aspect of trompe l’oeil works in the three-dimensions is the issue of scale. The scale must be life-size to be believable, and the importance of this aspect does not escape the keen attention of Sylvia Hyman. In her lectures about her current work, she explains about the pencils. “The porcelain pencils are slipcast. I had difficulty finding oversize pencils from which to make the mould. Sally Levine, who was formerly in the pencil-making business, came to my aid. She contacted a fellow manufacturer whom she thought was making large pencils. Just a few days after I spoke with her a box arrived containing several differently shaped pencils that were the perfect size from which to make the moulds.”

She discovered a similar phenomenon with the baseballs in her compositions. If she casts them from a softball, they will shrink down to the size of the baseball. In the stack of books entitled, Danger Music, we find a selection of books that are autobiographical. The ordering of the books have, in fact, symbolic meaning. The book on top is a replica of a book written by her daughter. One can imagine that in spite of Hyman’s accomplishments as an artist, she still views her role as a mother as one of her most important achievements. The next book, The Jews on Tin Pan Alley, one can conjecture that her Jewish heritage is the next most important part of her identity. The third book represents her identity as an artist, and her desire to make her mark in that history.

Sylvia HymanArt made of clay is some of the oldest surviving art forms, and she alludes to the longevity of the art form and the permanence of clay art by including this book in the stack. She also wishes to make reference to the art about which she has learnt and to pay homage to all artists who have influenced her. The bottom book Clay Art, shows that this art form is the foundation of her life, on which all other aspects of her life rests. This involvement in clay has been the literal rock foundation of her life. She also wants to make reference to the strength and permanence of this medium. The book form appears in many of her works and has become a symbol. It symbolises the vast knowledge she holds about this art form. She acknowledges clay’s role as the fundamental element of her life in that it has provided continuity as has her focus on art. The remaining book in the stack, Computers Simplified, represents the constant change of contemporary life and also represents the contrast of clay as an ‘old’ technology and the emergence of computers as a new technology. This remarkable artist continues to grow and learn in her craft and its technical demands while learning the skills of new technology. But what makes the newest works even richer is the ongoing mind games and word associations put into play. The more recent work deals with new abstract concepts, other intellectual pursuits and another range of mental exercises. A collection of abandoned puzzles, with pencils lying on top, suggest a readiness to fill in a square when the word finally pops into the mind. Rolls of architectural blue prints demand the mental capacity to visualise their specifications in the mind’s eye. A variety of books on various topics speaks of research and finding answers.

The books on specific topics reveal the focus of collections, the need for people to know as much as they can and to become experts on a particular subject. For example, the author of The Jews on Tin Pan Alley collects the sheet music of this era. How-to computer manuals remind us all of new mental exercises in which we engage.

We can be certain that this artist loved books and read to her children, and enriched their childhood by providing crayons and colouring books to them in the belief that these childhood activities are essential to each child’s intellectual development. Likewise, the significance of ‘play’ to the contribution of all fields of inquiry are not lost on this intelligent artist, and are reiterated in Diversity of Interests. Here we find connections between these childhood playtime objects and the elevated interests of adulthood, such as art history, philosophy, computer sciences, and so much more. The artist clearly loves storybooks and comics and wants us to treasure them. How appropriate that an exhibit of her works be exhibited in a public library, where the joys and secrets of books are accessible to everyone. Sylvia Hyman selects intellectual applications as portrayed in mapping and reading maps, and invites us to discover our capacity to visualise and navigate. We study her maps not only to see how they were made, but to understand the significance of the places mapped out. A nautical still life is not merely a collection of related items but also a symbol of a journey and the essential baggage and accoutrements for a trip. She draws parallels between the journey of this type of ‘craft’ and her kind of ‘craft’. Objects symbolise complex human endeavours, and we marvel at her capacity not only to transform a material, but also to transform mundane objects into meaningful images. The difficulty of wrapping one’s mind around the complexity and richness of this work is surely in the power and capacity of this work to engage us so.

Susan DeMay is a ceramic artist and professor from Nashville, TN. Sylvia Hyman will hold a major exhibition of her work at the Frist Center for Visual Arts, Nashville, TN, from June 2007. Caption title page: Bark Tub with Blueprints. 2003. 38 x 28 x 33 cm. Photography John Cummings.

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