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Movement freezes in porcelain sculptures by Zsolt József Simon

Kieron Marchese | 06 Sep 2021

       

Contemporary artist Zsolt József Simon doesn’t capture forms but the process of forming instead. In a constant state of maneuvering, his materials find their natural order as sculpture


The difficulty of depicting motion in a medium where none can exist doesn’t dissuade ceramist Zsolt József Simon. In fact, the artistic conundrum is an inescapable source of inspiration for the Hungarian designer, who figuratively and literally needs movement to help his materials find their form. His sculptures are gestural studies rather than postural representations, recognisable somehow as an organic shape of species that doesn’t exist or had long been extinct. But Simon doesn’t use a subject. His pieces are created from organised chaos and as such, movement reserves its imprint in their composition and every little detail.

Zsolt József Simon, ‘Untitled’ (2011)
Credit: Officine Saffi 

The most valuable tool in Simon’s arsenal is an understanding of the opportunities for shaping forms inherent in moulding errors. He employs an advanced version of slip casting, a potter’s traditional technique where liquid clay mixture, or slip, is poured into a plaster mould. Simon sticks to tradition as far as the different elements involved are concerned, but instead of creating a tightly packed and solid mould, he intentionally lets the slip leak between its cavities to form intricate, some would say otherworldly, effects between the inside and outside of his sculptures.

It is extremely complex. He begins by making separate moulds for the base, belly, neck and crown of his sculptures, which he dissects to create 100-150 smaller pieces, cutting and carving them into shape one by one. This determines the shape, which Simon makes wider towards the outside and narrow towards the inside, a technical aspect that ultimately leads to the radial form of the object. After that, he assembles the mould with adhesive tape and places small, leather-hard porcelain shims in between parts to leave space so the porcelain slip can fill those gaps. The finished mould is then placed onto a plaster batt with a hole in the surface where excess slip can be released during the  forming phase.  

Zsolt József Simon working at his studio in Pécs, Hungary
Credit: Zsolt József Simon

The puzzle-like pieces that Simon creates ultimately create an imperfect mould, where space is left intentionally to create “wings”, which are both an aesthetic and functional element in the final sculptures. A given group of plaster pieces is used for creating 5-7 similar pieces, but never the same objects. “My rounded plaster forms fit into the hollows of the porcelain as the flesh adheres to the bones,” Simon explains. “The bone-like appearance of the form stems from the technique that has been developed by me.”

Zsolt József Simon using a handsaw to working at his studio in Pécs, Hungary
Credit: Zsolt József Simon

Once the mould is complete and placed onto the batt, then comes the dramatic moment of pouring in the clay mixture and hoping that the individual parts don’t slide, or worse, break. After this, Simon must wait for the perfect time when the porcelain is stable enough but still slightly flexible to remove the mould and complete the process, before dismantling his makeshift casing to reveal the sculpture’s mysterious condition. To finish Simon doesn’t use glaze. Instead, he works on the surface with a wet brush to remove any undesired textures or surplus material.  

Zsolt József Simon assembling a mould at his studio in Pécs, Hungary
Credit: Zsolt József Simon

Experimenting with the various moulds became a generative process, indebted to a masterful implementation of his own technique and a commitment to understanding how each mould performs. “The process of creation originally emerged from the technique itself,” he says. “I saw what kind of surfaces could be created and, through free compilations, what kind of unique casting moulds and objects I could attain. I tried something new again and I repeated this process of creating-and-observing to the point till I felt respective satisfaction with the outcome.

Zsolt József Simon assembling a mould at his studio in Pécs, Hungary
Credit: Zsolt József Simon

Simon not only helps the material to find its form but encourages it to go further, capturing the motion of the process itself rather than the object’s final position. Seemingly static, these sculptures fracture space with the delicacy of something alive; simultaneously evoking the shells of diatoms that have long expired. The process might be artificial, but nature remains an inspiration: its processes, as well as its forms and colours. Flowing smooth and tactile at the neck, on the inside they are sharp-edged with pointed fissures, their bodies intersecting with themselves to create shadows around them like a second skin.

Zsolt József Simon working on the surface with a brush to remove any undesired texture
Credit: Zsolt József Simon

Simon was born in Hungary in 1973 and studied at the University of Art and Design of Budapest. He is by and large a ceramist but also studied music and drama. These different sides of him, art and movement, came closer together when he started his studies in a progressive art school alongside lessons in Bothmer Gymnastics, a series of movement exercises based on the anthroposophical view of the human being. Attracted by space and the 3D, he later applied to the silicate department of the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (formerly Hungarian University of Craft and Design). When his diploma piece was on the way to Korea for the 4th World Ceramic biennale, 2007, he also travelled east, but to Indonesia, with a scholarship in his pocket, in order to “forget everything” that he ever studied. Since then he has been the subject of several exhibitions showcasing contemporary ceramics, including those at Officine Saffi, which houses his sculptures.

Zsolt József Simon, ‘Untitled’ (2011)
Credit: Officine Saffi 

“Beauty, unfolding from the playful, dramatic interplay between opposing qualities, has always been the focal point in my view of art...and the rhythmic repetition of form or pattern on my objects is unquestionably a musical experience,” says the designer. What results from diverse experience is an interplay of light, form and contrast—a study made possible by Simon’s command of both medium and material. Despite the seemingly archaic nature of the process, today he is actually able to visualise the result before he begins. 

Zsolt József Simon, ‘Untitled’ (2011)
Credit: Officine Saffi 

Zsolt József Simon pushes the material to its extremes to create an obvious, albeit unintentional sense of fragility. But really, Simon wants to perceive a sense of lightness, a quality he accentuates and subverts with colour. Where there is white, an opaqueness enhances the bone-like nature; yellow moves the imagination towards something floral and abundant; and shades of gray bring the interior darkness to the forefront. “In my sculptures, the form is the most important element. The cement and concrete-like colours keep those objects on the ground. It’s as if I have taught a stone how to fly.”

Zsolt József Simon, ‘Strong Billow 1’ (2017)
Credit: Officine Saffi 

Zsolt József Simon, ‘Strong Billow 3’ (2011)
Credit: Officine Saffi 

The movement is inside and outside; it influences the whole and not just the parts. Ultimately, Simon wants viewers to marvel at the imperfect rhythms and fine details inherent in the movement of his motionless objects. “I don’t hide thoughts in my objects that would need thorough investigation,” he says. “This is not an attribute of my creations to make someone think about them in the first place. Rather, I intend them to be an elementary experience. I don’t want the spectators to understand them but to indulge in seeing and perceiving the creations in the first place.” 

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