Ron Nagle

Ron Nagle is widely known for his small, brightly glazed porcelain adaptations of the cup form, which are obsessively stylized and hyperrefined. Because they are generally smaller than regular cups the interplays of shape, surface texture, and color seem magnified to a microarchitectural scale. Indeed, they refer equally to the mid-century Deco shapes and surfaces of California architecture, to furniture and interior decor, to the “strange rocks” of Chinese and Japanese gardens, to the visual “statements” of fashion design, to parts of the human anatomy, and to the enamel surfaces of ’50s hot rods. Over the years—as his three-decade retrospective exhibition at the Mills College Art Gallery demonstrated—the capacity of Nagle’s cups to synthesize and reflect the visual intensities of the modern world has been remarkable.

At the heart of this performance is a keen eye and a vulnerable, almost fragile sensibility. Perhaps because his initial influences included the slip casting and china painting techniques associated with turn-of-the-century women’s clubs, Nagle tended to resist the formalist machismo that was part of the ceramic sculptural scene of the late ’50s. Though as interested in abstract painting as in ceramics, he was less an expressionist than a Modern classicist whose heroes were Josef Albers and Giorgio Morandi, artists for whom variations on a theme were of paramount importance, and in whose work (for Nagle) the visual intensity of color and the subtle modulation of still-life “vessels” came together. Indeed, his cups can be characterized as three-dimensional still lifes suspended in an imaginary zone where all their references from the worlds of art and popular culture come together in a pastiche of intensified visual phenomena—what the artist himself calls “an eclectic combo plate.”

There is a subtle irony to Nagle’s cups that springs from the incongruity of their references: as when a piece called Blue Two-Step, 1983, synthesizes elements from Modernist painting, Memphis furniture design, and post-Modern architecture. Over the years this eclecticism has often stretched the cups into forms of abstraction that court unrecognizability. With his more recent works, however, the cup has returned in perhaps its most feminine form, referring again to his early interest in slip casting and china painting, but mostly to the fragile poetics of childhood.

Cast as wafer-thin, almost luminous porcelain, the new cups tend to be muted shades of pink and white, with delicate dustings of powder blue and occasional drips of darker glazes along their bases. Less stylistic pastiches than the previous works, they are like “vessels” for the emergence of a kind of narrative play (new for Nagle) in which decals of such images as spider webs, hand shadows, birds and twigs, Chinese characters, a young Chinese girl, open windows, and a drawing by his daughter in which a human head looks up at a UFO are glazed onto the surfaces of the cups. As a suite of images, they conjure a sense of childlike wonder, of a secret vocabulary of signs and riddles through which children articulate their inner lives. Nagle has crossed a threshold here: from an obsessive reflection of the visual world around him to a softer reflection upon his interior lives—those inside himself, inside his family, and inside the web of memories and friendships that keep us young.

Jeff Kelly