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Ron Nagle

by Brook S. Mason
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San Francisco artist Ron Nagle, 72, who creates small disquieting sculptures in clay, last week became a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters along with such contemporary art-world heavyweights as James Turrell and Cy Twombly. Nagle, whose work defies traditional boundaries between ceramics and painting and sculpture, was honored with the Arts and Letters Award in Art.

Now, with the talented Brussels dealer Pierre Marie Giraud both curating "Sleep Study," an exhibition devoted to his work that debuts at Gallery Lefebvre in Paris on May 26, 2011, and showcasing more of his latest work in clay at the upcoming Design Miami/Basel art fair in June, Nagle is finally garnering the international acclaim his artistry merits. Plus, a new book, Nagle, Ron (Silvergate), includes an introduction by Dave Hickey and a CD of the artist’s music, which he writes, plays and produces.

Nagle's most recent solo shows in this country were held three years ago at Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco and at George Adams Gallery in Chelsea, and last summer at James Kelly Contemporary, in Santa Fe. He is part of the Abstract Expressionist Ceramics group led by Peter Voulkos, and Ken Price was a major influence on his early work.

Five of Nagle’s ceramic sculptures are currently on view until June 12, 2011, at the academy’s headquarters on Audubon Terrace, as part of the group exhibition devoted to new members and award recipients. Nagle’s work is also featured in "Paul Clay"at Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn’s Salon 94 Bowery, June 23-July 30, 2011.

Brook S. Mason: With your work moving far beyond contemporary decorative arts and the entire craft world -- although you were named a Fellow of the American Craft Council in 1997 -- how do you see ceramics?

Ron Nagle: Even though I’m part of the history of ceramics, I deliberately shy away from it. Unfortunately, there is a ghettoized portion of clay, a marginalization of some artists working in that medium.

My aspirations and inspirations come from a whole other world.

BSM: How do you see the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award?

RN: Initially, my reaction was, "I don’t do contests." The important thing is the recognition by other artists. They see things other people just don’t.

BSM: Your forms are unlike anyone else working in clay.

RN: Twombly and Morandi are influences. My work is a cross between landscape and still life, but like peering into one of those tiny windowed Easter eggs. All come from my drawings.

BSM: Your colors are so distinctive, with a defiantly psychedelic tonality, like the pale pink of your disquieting Mirder Inc. and spiced up orange of your Beirut Canal. Which artists have inspired you?

RN: Francis Bacon. He’s a brilliant colorist; his saffron oranges, his pinks. Tapies, de Kooning, early Twombly, Albert Ryder, Albers. But also hot-rod culture. My new work has drab olives from 17th-century Japanese ceramics.

BSM: Can you tell us about your relationship with Peter Voulkos?

RN: I worked in his studio at UC Berkeley but my work has very little kinship with his.

BSM: And Ken Price?

RN: Kenny was the first cup guy. He was an enormous influence in terms of scale. He was the first guy to bring bright color to stoneware.

BSM: With your retirement from your 32-year-long teaching career at Mills College, what’s on your agenda now?

RN: I’m recording more than ever, my work has never been better and I draw every night.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.