Los Angeles

Ron Nagle

Frank Lloyd Gallery

In a show of small ceramic objects (all 2002), Ron Nagle displayed his gift for tweaking familiar forms. Selections from his ongoing “Snuff Bottles” series, begun in 2002, for example, clearly revealed a kinship to the small-necked, round-capped collectible object, with Nagle retaining the item’s telltale attributes while converting its form into a female figure that looked like a cross between a doll, a finish-fetish sculpture, and a fertility goddess. The bottles’ anthropomorphic shoulders flow into heart-shaped torsos with puffed-out bosoms, and the lower portions fan out into broad skirts edged by drip lines of glaze that read like ruffles. Airbrushed accents there intensify the pieces’ luminosity; in some, hazes of reddish orange go so far as to imply heat escaping from beneath the hemline.

Selections from the “Smoove Wares” series, 2001–, meanwhile, showed a greater departure from the forms they are based on. In each, the lip of a cup or mug becomes so broad that the structure resembles a solid cylinder with the center bored out. The handles have the character of tail fins, airfoils, or stabilizers. Positioned on shelves so viewers could appreciate their silhouettes, the cups leaned as if in motion, their broad bases hugging the horizontal surfaces like cars on a straightaway. The flawless alteration and embellishment of elemental forms, along with the multicoated glazework, pin-striping, and sprayed-on effects all evoke the stylistic screams and screeches of chopped and lowered hot rods that define a West Coast aesthetic in car shows.

In fact, Nagle’s cups and bottles, with their saturated colors and highlighted highlights, reference a kustomizing spirit, a faith that something surreal, baroque, powerful, sexy, awe-inspiring, and unique can be coaxed from the factory floor model. In his “Thin Fin” pieces, 1998–, Nagle applies this sensibility to another California standard: the stucco facade. Each of these tiny objects is a self-contained base (like a little piece of real estate) with a vertical, bookendish flat plane providing a backdrop for a sculptural element existing somewhere between bent phallus, cresting wave, curled finger, and surrealistic architectural detail. The pieces are coated with glazes that almost resemble chunky flocking, and each is dusted in a warm highlight color, creating the look of stucco caught in sunset light. One could imagine Nagle’s “Snuff Bottles” standing in front of these walls and watching as the “Smoove Wares” pieces cruise by.

It would be easy enough to call these objects eye candy, but they are much sweeter and more complex than that. Like the kustom-culture objects to which they are kin, they seem born of a subjectivity deeply devoted to creating something amazing and perhaps even uncanny. The objects radiate a contagious fetishism and cater to dangerous desires. In a way, Nagle is kind to make them small and put them on shelves, where we can ogle as spectators—averting our eyes when we need a break—but leave the driving to the artist. After all, when surrounded by fifteen of them, small and playful though they may be, one realizes that these are things most of us don’t dare try to handle.

Christopher Miles