Ron Nagle’s work is nothing less than astonishing—simultaneously odd and beautiful, it seamlessly incorporates multiple aspects; the grotesque, elegant, crude, erotic, psychedelic, intimate, humorous, and dead serious. His work is instantly recognizable as his; no other artist creates anything remotely like it. Although its inception coincided with a particular moment in time and place and with a specific group of like-minded people, in terms of process and appearance his body of work is entirely its own thing. He is an influential figure, but his process is so time-consuming and demanding of a particular kind of skill and finesse that it has generated no imitators; an anomaly in a time of global artistic conformity. His work is marked by a single-minded concern with bringing something new into existence. His focus has always been on the act of creation itself, as he puts it, “not just making something but feeling it.” He is interested in making objects “that [move] people to some other place they’ve never been before.” He’s attracted to and invested in the sensuality of the handmade object, focused on magic, beauty, and presence.
Born in San Francisco in 1939, Nagle is possessed of multiple intelligences and relentless curiosities; he’s had simultaneous long, interwoven, and successful careers as an artist and a musician. His work was already highly developed conceptually and technically at the beginning of his career. In the early 1960s, he worked with the most innovative ceramic sculptors in California; including Peter Voulkos, Ken Price, Jim Melchert, Richard Shaw, and John Mason, who as a group were redefining ceramics as a fine arts medium. Working together, Nagle and these artists developed what became known as the California Clay Movement. Nagle’s artistic influences are diverse and based on many centuries’ worth of artistic and utilitarian objects from multiple cultures and geographic locations. These classical influences have been blended with aspects of 20th- and 21st-century pop culture to create work that’s rooted in its time yet also transcends it.
Thematic and Obsessive
Although each piece he makes differs distinctly from the ones preceding it, his work as a whole is thematic and obsessive. A look back at his production of the past 50 years reveals the way his ideas have been compressed into distinct categories of form. Each piece is characterized by his intense focus on surface, content, and specific constellations of shapes and textures. The work’s thematic nature is a reflection of his wide-ranging influences; the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, Asian art, Noir cinema, cartoons, Joseph Albers’ paintings and color theory, tattoos, surfboards, and hot rods with their candy-apple paint jobs. His entire body of work exists in the tense and amorphous space between functional objects, painting, and sculpture. Though extraordinarily diverse, the fundamental DNA of each object lies in his flawless fabrication techniques. The time-consuming effort each piece demands is immediately apparent in the vivid surfaces, the perfect pitch of his forms, and the intensity of content. Regarding fabrication, Nagle believes “Craftsmanship does not only represent . . . . finished work. It is any technique that makes the finished piece believable.” Nagle made up a term, “peripheral cognition” that describes an aspect of his thinking process. He defines this phrase as a state of doing something while distracted, such as watching a movie while drawing. This allows him to work with a divided focus so as to avoid over-analyzing what he’s working on.
Theatrics of Viewing
Nagle has always been highly aware of the theatrics of viewing. Part of the pleasure of looking at small objects lies in the way they demand a close-up confrontation. From early on, he has paid an unusual amount of attention to the way his work is displayed; he thinks about the observer/audience’s point of view, viewing posture, and the ways in which presentation affects perceived scale.
His recent exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery in Los Angeles included a number of drawings in one room and, in an inner room, nineteen objects displayed in regimented rows on high, narrow, MDF stands that placed the work slightly below eye level. Each work was enclosed in a clear Plexiglas cover that encouraged viewing from all sides.
These were very distant relatives of the standard museum vitrine case, yet they did more than simply protect the work. The gleam of the Plexiglas gave every object a particularly jewel-like aspect. It made each piece discrete from the other work adjacent to it by giving each a psychological breathing space for viewing.
Rather than isolating the viewer from the work, this presentation amplified and magnified the experience of looking at it. Given that the typical Nagle piece is not symmetrical, every viewpoint yields a different aspect as a reward for looking closely. His recent work gives the illusion of extreme delicacy and the protection of the rectangular vitrines adds to this effect.
An Intimate Scale
Although for a brief time in the late 1980s he experimented with working at a larger size, Nagle decided early on in his career to keep his work at an intimate scale. Despite the fact that small-scale flies in the face of what is valued in the art world (really big sculpture) it feels intuitively right to him. His work has nothing in common with the overblown objects that populate art-fairs and dominate galleries. Small pieces absorb the viewer’s attention, and offer surprises—they demand close-up examination. His work offers a particular kind of human/object interaction; it’s highly detailed, invites touch, can be kept close, and is at the scale of the hand. What Nagle achieves in terms of intimacy, weight, balance, and form would be impossible at a larger scale.
Nagle began with a strictly clay-based practice but since then has always worked with a variety of materials—materials that became increasingly diverse as certain industrial techniques became accessible to artists. These materials include catalyzed polyurethane, epoxy resins, silicon molds, Bondo, automotive paints, and acrylics.
His approach to clay has always been unconventional, he has never been a ceramic purist. A single piece will be fabricated from multiple parts cast from a variety of materials including ceramic. He epoxies pieces together. He uses an airbrush or spray gun for glazes. He has used the spray gun to create thickly textured, stucco-like surfaces. His surfaces often require hours of meticulous sanding prior to multiple glaze firings. He uses multiple techniques for sanding: by hand, with a Dremel tool or other electric sanding tools. Because the pieces are cast, they can be closely fitted; they become so integrated they appear to be one single, articulated material.
His tendency to work in series was animated by his choice to work with both low-fire clays and high-fire porcelain, multiple firings, decals, slip-casting molds, ready-made or occasionally modified glazes, and china paints. Many of his thematic groups were based on the extreme deconstruction of the cup form. The various series Nagle has created since the late 1970s have been as varied as their titles: including Archimectric, Knob Jobs, Hairdo Ware, Thin Fin, Smoove Ware, and Chanagram. His titles are generally irreverent and provocative; they reflect his love of puns and word-play.
Nagle’s first solo show was in 1968. Since then his work has been seen in numerous solo museum exhibitions including the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the San Diego Museum of Art. His work was included in the 55th Venice Biennale’s central exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni in 2013.
Nagle’s professional career as a musician has been equally extensive. He has worked with a wide array of well-known musicians and has been an influential songwriter and composer. He has contributed music and sound design to numerous films, including The Exorcist, and has produced his own albums. His most recent album, The Many Moods of Ron Nagle, will be released later this year.
Given the variety and extent of his careers, Nagle dislikes being pigeon holed. He’s been asked for 50 years “What are you?” People want to have an either/or category; is he a musician or an artist; a potter, a ceramic artist, or a ceramic sculptor? His answer: “No, that’s all wrong. Really. I just make stuff.”
the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.