San Francisco

Ron Nagle

Quay Gallery

Both the consistently minuscule dimensions and the precisely painted surfaces of Ron Nagle’s ceramic sculptures evoke an aura of preciousness with which they must inevitably wrestle. In the past, Nagle has fought decorative cuteness by using streamlined architectonic shapes and surface designs that played with and against the form. The silhouettes of his cast-earthenware pieces were inspired by the domestic cup, and variations on their squat, cylindrical, asymmetrical archetype have ranged from irregularly notched three-dimensional “parallelograms” to rigorously cubic upright blocks. Yet the volumetric masses generally seem secondary to, or to provide a background for, their intricately textured and colored surfaces, which in turn evince such close attention to minute detail and glaze sheen that they almost suggest fussed-over trinkets.

Several of the dozen works from 1984 in this show continue Nagle’s trademark focus on surface finish. Many of these hollow 2-to-3-inch-high vessels contrast nubby against smooth surfaces, pinstripe-bound areas of splatter textures against uniform fields; all display Nagle’s characteristic lower deckle edge of thick, pendant drips behind which is a recessed foot/pedestal, the two in contrasting colors. Yet such stylizations frequently augment a new inventiveness with sculptural shape. The top part of the bulbous body of Contessa, in a stippled mat charcoal, bifurcates into a short smokestack and a backward-flaring wing. The two shapes are visually united by a shared rectangular panel of glossy purple splattered with green, its orange edge asserting a geometric regularity atop the eccentric volumes, both flattening them and emphasizing the odd shapes. The tones of the darkened, intense colors are more sophisticated than garish (as they might seem from this description), and the play of prominent shapes against design is more complex and mysterious than in Nagle’s previous work.

Despite Nagle’s tendency toward obsessive surface detail, the most compelling sculptures here were the four cast in a shape he calls “Knob Job,” and these were without surface graphics. More truly sculptural than earlier work, the "Knob Job’’ configuration juxtaposes two disparate upward-thrusting shapes: an irregular mound, like a scoop of ice cream atop a cone, and an uneven pyramid that has been cut away at a diagonal. The glistening, nubby tomato hues of Red Knob Job are only contrasted by an edge of rich gray drips and a green base; Nagle’s restraint here allows the fundamental duality of the forms a more evident presence. The interplay of soft and hard projectiles, and of positive and negative space, creates a forceful tension, but also transcends its particularity to evoke other yin-yang complementaries. Through no increase in size but a minimization of the sculpture’s elements, Nagle gains a monumentalization of effect.

Suzaan Boettger