New York

Ron Nagle

Charles Cowles Gallery

Besides really big pictures, will the ’80s also be remembered for the return of really small objects to mainstream consideration? After all, much attention has been focused on the sheer physical ambitiousness of recent really big pictures by, say, Julian Schnabel and others. Still, current artistic tastes also run in a decidedly intimate direction whose peculiar concerns were tellingly addressed by West Coast artist Ron Nagle in his show of small ceramic sculpture.

Born in San Francisco in 1939, Nagle studied with Peter Voulkos and Kenneth Price. Like them, he can turn traditional ceramic materials and techniques to nontraditional ends. His slip-cast clay and multiple-fired glazes yield magical expression in the highly individuated forms here, all measuring less than a foot in any direction. Nagle can animate surfaces and specify compositions so that what we see triggers evocative associations. Like those really big pictures, Nagle’s really small objects are to be appreciated on several levels, including formal and thematic ones. Hovering in the provocative zone between abstraction and representation, the vertical works at first glance look intriguingly pictorial, given their emphasis on luminous colored surfaces, gritty textures, and rectilinear, layered shapes. But sustained inspection reveals a suggestive edge to these forms. They seem like models of some elegant yet enigmatic post-Modernist architecture waiting to be built.

Some of the pieces have an odd petrified, even archaeological cast to them. The strong profile of one untitled horizontal piece from 1982 suggests a baby’s shoe, but one preserved through the artist’s highly personal process. This last example also appeals to our need to actively caress and possess things—one tends to want to pick up and hold something like this in order to know it. Still, the aloof and independent presence of this object—a product of the rough-textured surface and the stress on contrasting black and white, heightened by yellow and orange details—signals one to keep one’s distance. Therein lies the fascination of Nagle’s serious approach to small.

Ronny Cohen