Monday, January 28, 2008

It's All Clay, Every Bit of It

This past summer my mother and I went to Sylvia Hyman's exhibit, Fictional Clay, at The Frist in Nashville. Sylvia’s sculptures are of a genre called “trompe l’oeil” (fool the eye). You think you are looking at common objects like baskets, sheets of paper, envelopes, packages, but you are actually looking at clay imitation. It’s all made of clay, even her corrugated cardboard.
It’s quite remarkable (these photos don’t adequately demonstrate her mastery of detail). But to what end? Why would a woman spend days to create something that, in the end, would just look like, but not be, a piece of paper?
A number of people have questioned if her work constitutes art. They suggest it is only craft and lacking of concept or deeper meaning. It simply is what it is- a clever replica of something else. Art or not, it fascinated me. I’ve always been drawn to paper. Its potential is overwhelming. As much as it is used as a tool to convey meaning or message, it could interact with every possible human emotion. It represents infinite possibilities. I can’t quite wrap my mind around it, but I know it to be significant.
This past week I read a quote from Martin Buber’s "Distance and Relation,"and something in it carried me back to the Fictional Clay exhibit:
"Man has a great desire to enter into personal relation with things and to imprint on them his relation to them. To use them, even to possess them, is not enough; they must become his in another way...."
Do you know the feeling? I don't think he's talking about an unhealthy obsession here. This seems to go beyond our materialistic urge to collect, shop, stockpile. It's not about status or power, it's about confessing that the essence of the "thing" is beyond your grasp. I think this has to do with recognizing the worth of something, and in the case of Sylvia Hyman's pieces, it's often paper.
I believe I am correct that all of Hyman's paper objects are to appear used. Every piece has been handled by someone with a purpose. The sealed envelopes have messages, the wrapped packages hold surprises, the rolled up staff paper contains a composition.
But now I'm talking like this is real paper. It's not. It's clay, just like us. But by using clay, she blends the author with the content. Our words, our creations, our messages are part of who we are. And to the extent that a piece of paper contains the inner workings of a human mind, it alone could constitute a work of art. Like Hyman's work, its not just a piece of paper.


Jacqueline Diamond said...

You've provided some interesting reflections on my mother's work. Enjoyed your blog!
Jackie Diamond Hyman
(writing novels as Jacqueline Diamond at, and blogging twice a month at

katy said...

Interesting. Is the significance of paper wrapped up in its properties (i.e., fragile, perishable)? And if so, is the artist taking that away when she creates paper-looking clay pieces? Has she created a relationship facade?

Elizabeth Dark Wiley said...

Well, it is still fragile. And in some aspects, even more porcelain. And I suppose trompe l'oeil is all about trickery. By tricking me though, she leaves me thinking about the value of the real thing...
And paper is just part of the evolution of written communication. Go way back, and your back to writing on clay.

Karen Luttrell said...

Love the blog. The thing I like best about her work is the obsessive attention to detail. I wish she infused it with some irony or humor other than the obvious trompe l'oeil, otherwise, it comes off "cute". Maybe if she took it further and had pieces like wadded up and torn love letters or credit card bills, instead of pieces that just appear care-worn. The dichotomy between detail and deconstruction would be interesting.