Want to fry up a few of those eggs Hyman left lying in a basket? Don’t bother, unless you want to break a few teeth on the stoneware, porcelain and gold leaf she used to create her sleight-of-hand work “Eggstacy.” Likewise, it’s no use fiddling any of that Mozart sheet music Hyman placed in her violin case, or reading the Mad magazine she stacked in her bookshelf. That’s because both the score for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 and the magazine are made out of solid stoneware and porcelain.
Hyman, whose show Sylvia Hyman: Fictional Clay runs through Oct. 7 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, says she started out creating these works as a kind of joke. A virtuoso ceramicist, Hyman began baking up faux Chinese fortune cookies and birthday cakes in her kiln. Amazingly, the goodies looked so real that people were tempted to take a bite.
“I would give these cakes and cookies to my friends as a gag, and you should have seen the looks on their faces,” says Hyman. “Gradually, I began to turn this kind of work into a field of my own.”
Hyman’s field actually belongs to an ancient artistic practice that’s come to be known as trompe l’oeil, or “to deceive the eye.” Chinese artists from the Ming Dynasty created elaborate designs on teapots, while ceramicists such as the 16th century French sculptor Bernard Palissy made realistic looking lizards, fish and snakes to decorate pottery plates.
A former art teacher, Hyman first began working with clay in the late 1950s, and within a decade was creating plates artfully decorated with fruit. She continued to work and experiment with ceramic designs and by the 1980s was making rolled scrolls and diplomas as part of a series she called Family Records. But Hyman’s big breakthrough took place only about 10 years ago, when she began experimenting with—and expanding—her technique.
“When I first met Sylvia she was working with clay in fairly traditional ways, but then about 10 years ago she started making some radical changes,” says Carol Stein, whose Cumberland Gallery has exhibited Hyman’s work in five solo and 18 group shows over the years. “Suddenly, everything in her art became ceramic. So instead of just making a straw basket out of clay and placing a real pencil and crossword puzzle in it, she began making the pencil and crossword puzzle out of clay as well. She even developed a whole philosophy about the kinds of things she’d make.”
As a general rule, Hyman bases her sculptures on common, everyday knickknacks, the ephemera of life that most of us store in the attic and then promptly forget about. Her displays feature old maps, sheet music and playing cards. Crossword puzzles (especially from The New York Times) are a favorite subject, as are pop culture references to Mad magazine, The Cat in the Hat and the Peanuts comic strip.
“I think a lot of this art is autobiographical,” says Mark Scala, chief curator at the Frist. “Sylvia will of course deny it, but I think her references to Mad magazine reflect her sense of humor.”
Hyman concedes a familial connection to Alfred E. Neuman: as teenagers, her two children were Mad magazine mavens. (Hyman’s daughter, by the way, grew up to be the prolific novelist Jackie Diamond Hyman.) But she insists that the autobiographical nature of her art ends there.
“I don’t make crossword puzzles because I’m a crossword puzzle person,” says Hyman. “I make crossword puzzles and playing cards and the like because they’re familiar things. They are the signs and symbols of everyday life, and so they matter to people.”
Aside from the photorealism of her sculptures, perhaps the most amazing thing about Hyman is her age: she turns 90 in September and is one of the few artists in history whose most important works were all created after age 80.
Yet Hyman is no Grandma Moses. She’s remarkably fit—this lively and diminutive artist (she stand about 5-foot-nothing) doesn’t look a day over 60—and she’s as mentally sharp and creative as ever. She works every day in the basement studio of her Forest Hills home (her house is an architectural marvel, boasting a magnificent octagonal living room), and she shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’m just getting started,” she says.
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