The title of Ron Nagle’s exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery in Los Angeles, “Ice Breaker”, implies that this selection of 19 new sculptures constitutes an introduction to Nagle’s work, that it’s something of a conversation starter. In fact, the 77-year-old San Franciscan has been speaking for decades, even if his inimitable artistic voice has not always been heard. Nagle is a ceramicist capable of invoking the sacred and the profane in the same breath. He applies radiant colour fades to scatological or suggestive forms with titles like “Knob Job” and “Urinetrouble”. He sticks cartoon decals onto porcelain. His sculptures are small, but as the critic Dave Hickey has written, “Nagle’s trick is false modesty.” His tiny pieces pack a punch. In recent years, following a contemporary fashion for ceramics, the art world has begun to listen to him. A highlight of the 2013 Venice Biennale was a group of his sculptures, which had been paired with anonymous Tantric paintings from Rajasthan.
As a kid, Nagle was an avid hobbyist, building model aeroplanes and balsa-wood puppets. He did the stage makeup for school plays. He was captivated by the glamour of custom hot rods, and observed car fanatics meticulously applying dozens of coats of lacquer to their vehicles, sanding between each one. In high school he even experimented with making jewellery. All of these influences he incorporated into his aesthetic when, finally, he discovered clay.
While studying at San Francisco State University in the late 1950s Nagle caught wind of a maverick young ceramicist who led a class at the Los Angeles County Art Institute. Legend had it that jazz records were played in the classroom and large quantities of booze consumed, that most serious work was done in the middle of the night, that many of the students were not even officially enrolled. The teacher’s name was Peter Voulkos, and Nagle was desperate to meet him.
A titan of Californian ceramics, Voulkos liberated the field from its reverence of craft tradition and technical finesse. He saw himself not as a potter but as an abstract-expressionist sculptor, an artist who used clay vigorously and instinctually. He favoured an unpredictable, high-temperature firing technique that produced harder, large-scale stoneware and a more muted, earthier palette than the garishly coloured “low-fire” earthenware that was then popular with hobbyists. When Voulkos moved to the Bay Area to begin teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, Nagle applied – and was devastated when he was rejected. As a consolation for what Voulkos later admitted was an oversight, he gave Nagle a job as a technician in the ceramics workshop, and within a short time he was effectively running the department alongside his hero and mentor.
In order for art to progress, however, it is sometimes necessary for the son to kill the father. Nagle and his cohort of young ceramicists became increasingly influenced not by abstract-expressionist painters like Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline, as Voulkos was, but by the emerging pop-art movement. Andy Warhol’s first solo exhibition was in 1962 at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, where another of Voulkos’s students, Ken Price, was also exhibiting his work. Price and Nagle were drawn to loud colour and humorous kitsch. Together they set up a low-fire kiln in which they began producing the work for which they would each eventually become famous: vibrantly glazed, small-scale objects that sometimes look like conventional vessels, and sometimes look like nothing else on earth.
“Littlest Murmur” (2016)
Nagle’s rise as an artist did not come quickly. From the 1960s onwards he also made a living through music. He had some successes. His solo album, “Bad Rice” (1970), was well received, and Barbara Streisand recorded versions of two of his songs. In 1972, he was hired to record sound effects for William Friedkin’s film, “The Exorcist”. This sculpture’s title, and the collection of tiny holes which make it resemble a speaker, acknowledge Nagle’s background as a sound-maker. He has said that his technique of airbrushing dusty highlights and shadows onto rough textures is akin to adding reverb or echo in the recording studio – artificially heightening an existing effect.
“Turkish Hairlines” (2016)
The paddle-shaped part of this sculpture is instantly recognisable to southern Californians as the pad of a nopal – a species of cactus that grows wild at the sides of roads and is used, shorn of its spikes, in Mexican cuisine. Its inclusion here is, perhaps, a wink to the local audience of this exhibition, his first solo show in Los Angeles for over a decade. Nagle is fond of breaking not only the rules of composition, as he has in this wildly unbalanced arrangement, but also the rules of craft ceramics. Within a single sculpture he often uses ceramic, fine porcelain and Magic Sculpt (a two-part epoxy modelling clay); he applies ceramic glazes alongside sprayed auto-body paint; casts parts in epoxy resin and then glues them together. In fact this sculpture includes no ceramic at all, but is instead cast in resin and then painted to look like glazed clay. Nagle has a predilection for non-sequiturs and wordplay; as is often the case with his work, it doesn’t pay to try to decode the title.
“Similak Child” (2016)
Figuration in Nagle’s largely abstract work is rare. Here, a squidged nub of pink stands in for a human form sitting on a stylised bed. While the lump looks like unembellished clay, it is in fact a mix of clay and resin, specially painted. (Nothing is as it seems in Nagle’s world.) The title refers to a 1992 song by hip-hop duo, Black Sheep, in which the rapper extols the beauty of the “similak child” he meets in a club. The term, which has since come into wider circulation, is defined by Urban Dictionary as: “A girl that was raised on artificial breast milk and thus received optimum nutrients and a bad ass booty.”
“Intangible Assets” (2016)
Nagle’s pieces usually have a front and a back, and are often composed more like pictures than sculptures. (He once said that he prefers to think of them as “painted objects”.) This is one of a number of works in the exhibition that conjure a miniature landscape, almost in the way that a bonsai or Japanese Ikebana flower arrangement might. The aesthetics and philosophy of Japanese culture have deeply influenced Nagle, even if he filters it through a distinctly Western sensibility. (The tree in this sculpture is made from Magic Sculpt, rather than a piece of authentically gnarled wood.)
Ron Nagle: Ice Breaker Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles, until April 8th