On August 2, NPT will broadcast Sylvia Hyman: Eternal Wonder, a half-hour documentary by Curt Hahn about the famed Nashville artist who was in her forties when she first began working with clay. Five decades later, she continues to reinvent herself and push the boundaries of her medium. The airing of the documentary coincides with the Frist Center for the Visual Arts exhibit Sylvia Hyman: Fictional Clay, which highlights 24 meticulously crafted trompe l’oeil sculptures created over the last eight years by Hyman.
NPT Media Update Arts Correspondent Daniel Tidwell caught the press preview of the exhibit and wonders whether there’s a lot more to these pieces than simply tricking the eye.
As a young artist in grad school in New York, I often found myself in the middle of arguments about what constituted art and what amounted to craft. The work I was doing at the time was concerned with ideas about the hegemony of religion and its effects on gender, and consisted of painted wood pieces which had an undeniable handmade, folk art quality, as much as I wanted to deny it or argue about it. The year was 1989, the stock market had crashed two years prior, and the heady art market of the 80’s fueled by the rage for neo-expressionism had also crashed. Much of the work being made by my fellow grad students was heavily theoretical, photo/text juxtapositions—the antithesis of Schnabel, Baselitz, Basquiat and other painters who had come to prominence in the 80’s.
Painting and the hand made object were déclassé—an object of scorn—and if you were cool you could speak endlessly about how Jacque Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard informed your work. You might even take it so far as to make a work which was the equivalent of a theoretical illustration—for instance a set of mirrors with an image of the female body silk-screened onto it would clearly be a strong statement about the male gaze and Lacan’s mirror stage. It was this context, where painting was considered suspect ― that often precipitated arguments about whether or not my work was craft. I’d been in New York for a year and came into art school with no background in critical theory ― so my strategy for dealing with the school’s expectations that all students would embrace critical theory was to completely reject it and refuse to deal on that level — whenever someone would question my work or its theoretical underpinnings I’d clam up and claim to not have anything to say about the work, and ask to hear what others had to say. This strategy only worked to a certain point—I’d get to sit back and hear people express their opinions about the work, but inevitably when the discussion came to the point of classifying my work as craft because of its lack of critical engagement, I’d get angry and start talking about the content of the work.
Thinking back on it, it was a big mistake to reject critical theory in the way that I did—it could have informed the work in a very productive way—however this rejection also allowed me to play the part of the country bumpkin, right off the turnip truck from Tennessee—naïve about all the fancy terminology being thrown around by the kids who had come to grad school from Hampshire or Harvard or Yale. At one point during a critique, a professor who happened to be drunk at the time, called me a “real Johhny Reb”. All this because I didn’t want to talk about my art work.
After the initial shock of this new way of speaking about art as part of a larger theoretical and art historical conversation, I gave in and learned to meet other students and teachers at least half way ― giving people what they wanted to hear, which was some assurance that I could articulate how the work related to other contemporary art and some semblance of underlying critical theory — thus justifying the works status as fine art, and not craft.
Today at the Frist Center, Sylvia Hyman’s solo exhibit of clay work raises issues that are similar to the ones with which I struggled in grad school—namely what constitutes fine art and what qualifies as craft, and is it actually possible to impose a mode of analysis (e.g. Baudrillard’s ideas about simulacra and the hyperreal) upon work where that intent was never present and somehow wrench a deeper societal commentary from such work.
Hyman’s work is undeniably impressive—she’s a virtuoso with clay, creating amazing trompe l’oeil effects – most notable to my eye were the pieces of paper and envelopes which were wholly realistic. I could only wonder how the artist was able to flatten clay into such forms and fire it without cracking.
Clearly the pieces are labor intensive, yet I couldn’t help but wonder to what end? What was Ms. Hyman trying to communicate through these assemblages? Were the pieces meant as biographical statements with each element offering some clue to her life? Or were the pieces meant as a celebration of upper middle class life or simply as reportage—a curiosity cabinet of the objects that hold significance to the artist. The work lends itself to literal readings such as these and when this literality couples with the works’ dazzling technicality, one begins to question its status as art. Lacking any clear conceptual base, with the exception of the quick and easy biographical read, the work begins to fall apart, leaving one with the sheer craftiness of the whole enterprise.
The overwhelmingly literal nature of the work reminded me of a number of other artists in the area who make work that’s easy to like because of its ease of interpretation—clever illustrations that are the imagistic equivalent of a one-liner. It would be easy to relegate Ms. Hyman’s work to this category of art, which is created for mass appeal—but that would be too simple and lazy an interpretation of art that is thought quite highly of by many. As I left the exhibition it dawned on me—what if these pieces weren’t clay—what if they were actual objects assembled and then marketed as works of clay—a conceptual strategy that pitted the viewers’ expectations against the materiality of the work and the artist’s intent. As I mused on this possibility, Baudrillard’s ideas about the precession of simulacra came to mind. Baudrillard argued that Western society had lost contact with the real world and has been left with only signs of the real or the hyperreal. He felt that society had lost the ability to distinguish between reality and artifice through a precession of simulacra where a representation of the real actually precedes the real.
In “Simulacra and Simulations,” Baudrillard writes: “Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”
Perhaps Ms. Hyman’s works can be seen as inhabitants of this “desert of the real”. Seen through a postmodern lens these objects are simulacra – Ms. Hyman has created a world where middle class life is understood through vestiges of its material culture, which have been painstakingly portrayed in clay. Through her craft Ms. Hyman has obliterated the original and relegated it to the wastebin. In this context Ms. Hyman’s representations of letters, envelopes, baskets and magazines precede their real-world equivalents, leaving no distinction between reality and its representation, except the assurance by the artist and the museum that these objects are copies of their real world equivalents. Given this interpretation, one could then make the assumption that Ms. Hyman is in effect, whether intentionally or not, critiquing the middle class by creating these simulations which have obliterated the real and moved into the realm of the hyperreal. Through this conceptual leap, work which could at first glance be interpreted as a reactionary catalog of Mid-South bourgeois culture suddenly becomes almost thrilling in its complexity—providing a biting critique of our current value system and calling into question the viewer’s assumptions about the work’s meaning.
Additional Links: Cumberland Gallery