Archive: Issue No. 77, January 2004

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What motivates curators and art buyers to purchase artworks? This simple question is the premise for Gallery Choice, a monthly feature that aims to reveal who (public museums/corporate collections/private galleries) is buying what (artist), and why.



Institution: Michael Stevenson Contemporary
Artist: Hylton Nel
Title: Madonna and Child, 1985
Media: Earthenware, blue and white underglaze, red enamel
Dimensions: Height 44cm, Diameter 25.5cm
Collection: Peter Visser

Motivation for purchase:
I have had a long affinity with the work of Hylton Nel and recall buying my first plate for R30 when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s. Ever since, I have regularly acquired plates, bowls and vases which I use everyday. I am often asked 'What does an art dealer have at home?' - and the honest truth is that the only art I own personally are works by Hylton Nel. His painterly aesthetic, humour, rich references to ceramic history, and consciousness of functionality continually amuse and amaze me.

Over the past few months I have been working on a book on Nel's life and work, which I could have fiddled and tweaked endlessly. The text in the book is made up of extended interviews with him that I conducted over the past few months, which have proved to be a revelatory experience. In these conversations Nel made himself very vulnerable and provided fascinating anecdotes about the lonely path he has trodden to realize his very personal vision.

Nel's work is not well known to South Africans, partly because most of his production over the past decade has been sold abroad. Box after box is sent off to The Fine Arts Society in New Bond Street, London, who in turn have sold his pieces to the rich and famous, as well as collectors across the world. A further reason for the lack of awareness in South Africa of his art is the fact that he is mostly thought of as a ceramist. However, I would rather see him as an artist who uses ceramics as a medium in the same way that other artists use oil paint, photography or bronze. Nel describes himself as an "artist-potter", which aptly refers to his interest in painted imagery as well as with form and function.

Over the past four decades he has developed a style of work that is rich in references to the decorative arts, as well as literary and art historical sources. His plates, bowls, vases, plaques and figurative pieces are idiosyncratically decorated with witty - and sometimes poignant - line drawings and script. His imagery ranges from penises to Madonna's, from cats through to angels, and his quotes are drawn from poetry and the daily press, as well as his observations of the world around him on his small holding on the outskirts of Calitzdorp, situated in the Klein Karoo.

I have always felt that one should not deal in the objects that one collects, because of the probable conflict of interest between client and dealer. A collector will surely not have the opportunity to buy the best work produced by an artist if a dealer siphons-off pieces for a personal collection. Now that I am exhibiting works by Hylton Nel, I may be faced with an end to my own collecting of his work. But rules are for breaking, and most definitely in this instance, because my life would be much the poorer were I not surrounded by the products of his fertile imagination. Sadly, for new collectors, the plates no longer cost R30 but his new work is as inventive and amusing as ever.