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Pottery Winner: An Artist's Dark, Funny Oeuvre Gets Major Show

Oct 24, 2015
Originally published on October 24, 2015 12:35 pm

Ron Nagle is a lot like his ceramics: compact, tidy, quirky — and colorful.

The artist, who has helped take clay to the heights of the contemporary art world, recently sported black pants, a blue-and-white striped T-shirt, white shoes, red socks and a rose-colored hat.

Around his neck hangs a long silver chain, filled with charms. There's a heart, signifying Valentine's day, the date he was married decades ago; an R for his first name; a skull representing death; a hare, Nagle's sign in Chinese astrology.

"This is the most important," he says, showing a slice of cheese. "It just means — well, you'll get it later."

Nagle, 76, has pieces in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

He's also got a major New York show — the biggest solo exhibition ever at New York City's blue chip Mathew Marks Gallery — and he's part of a show at the Yale University Art Gallery.

On top of all that, Nagle is seeing a CD reissue of his 1970 solo record.

In one song, he laments, "Cheese now, there's no time like the present — do I have to die to get it?" Now, his wait may be over.

Nagle's band The Mystery Trend was an early part of the San Francisco rock scene in the mid-1960s. By the time Nagle recorded "Cheese Now," the band had already broken up — Nagle wasn't too keen on touring.

"I'd get homesick, even as a kid," he says. "I've got a few neurotic quirks."

Fortunately, he'd been interested in ceramics since he was a kid. He had received a degree in ceramics from San Francisco state, but knew there was more than the program offered.

"My mother had a ceramic club in the basement," he says. "So all of those hobbyist techniques I eventually incorporated into my own work."

Nagle's distinctive work still uses the molds that he saw in his mom's basement, and a bright palette like the paints he and his father used on model planes and cars.

Much like those models, the scale of Nagle's work his scale is also small, as if they're tiny, non-functional containers for bigger ideas.

"[They're] kind of like bonsai, but with a kind of distinctive weirdness about it," says Roberta Smith, a chief art critic at the New York Times. "There's all kinds of building. There's different kinds of crafts and there's different kinds of allusions to the body and its functions."

Of the three dozen pieces in Nagle's current exhibition at the Matthew Marks gallery in Manhattan, all are under 8 inches in any direction. The sculptures — no cups, no bowls — are multi-colored and multi textured: one pebbled, the other smooth, one mottled, the other slick. Thin, coral-like branches tilt atop a slab.

Nagle also combines clay with other materials, including something used by model makers: Magic Sculp, which doesn't need to be fired.

"It's more about the idea now," Nagle says.

It's definitely not his mother's ceramics, says Roberta Smith.

"It's very complicated what he does," she says. "Sex ... illusions ... body ... remember that piece, 'Lotta Wattage'?"

Nagle is big on titles — not just "Lotta Wattage" but "Centaur Of Attention," "Skin Grift," "Lamb Shank Redemption."

"I don't see this in any egotistical way but I would say my greatest gift, more than music ... is my sense of humor — basically because I'm a melancholy person," he says.

That humor with a tinge of latent menace is also true of the music Nagle's continued to make during his career. He's also written songs for other artists, like Barbra Streisand, The Tubes and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas.

But it's Nagle's sculptures that have earned him his widest audience, and now, a show in a major gallery — displaying the objects in special vitrines as if they were works of ancient pottery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"This is the big deal, the top of the bucket list," Nagle says. "What I've always wanted."

After decades of work, Nagle's gotten his cheese.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ron Nagle is one of the few contemporary artists who works in clay, same medium used by kindergarteners. Nagle works are included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and many other major museums. His biggest solo exhibition ever is at New York's blue chip Matthew Marks Gallery. He's part of another show at Yale University's Art Gallery. And as Karen Michel reports, Ron Nagle, like B.J. Leiderman, who does our theme music, still finds time for his passion of music.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Ron Nagle is a lot like his ceramics - compact, tidy, quirky and colorful. He's wearing black pants, a blue-and-white striped T-shirt, white shoes, red socks and a rose-colored hat. Around his neck, he wears a long, silver chain with a bunch of charms. There's a heart signifying Valentine's Day, the date he was married decades ago, a skull representing death, a hare, Nagle's sign in Chinese astrology...

RON NAGLE: And the most important thing here is this slice of cheese. It just means, well, you'll get it later.

MICHEL: At 76, with a major New York show and a CD reissue of his 1970 solo record, Ron Nagle may finally be getting his cheese.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEESE NOW")

NAGLE: (Singing) Cheese now, cheese now - there's no time like the present, yeah. Cheese now, I paid too many dues to forget it. Do I have to die to get credit? Cheese now...

MICHEL: By the time Nagle recorded this song, his band The Mystery Trend had already broken up. The group was an early part of the San Francisco music scene, but Nagle wasn't too keen on touring.

NAGLE: I'd get homesick, even as a kid. I - you know, I've got a few little neurotic quirks.

MICHEL: Fortunately, he'd been interested in ceramics since he was a kid.

NAGLE: Because my mother had a ceramic club in the basement and they did Santa Claus mugs and all that stuff was there on the shelf - decals, China paints. So all of those hobbyist techniques, I eventually incorporated into my own work.

MICHEL: Nagle got a degree in ceramics from San Francisco State but knew there was more than the program offered.

NAGLE: I said wait a second - everything that people were teaching me was wrong.

MICHEL: His distinctive work still uses the molds that he saw in his mom's basement and a bright palette like the paints he and his father used on model planes and cars. Much like those models, the scale of Nagle's work is also small, as if they're tiny, non-functional containers for bigger ideas.

ROBERTA SMITH: Kind of like bonsai but with a kind of distinctive weirdness about it.

MICHEL: Roberta Smith is a chief art critic at The New York Times.

SMITH: It's very complicated what he does. You know, and there's, like, lots of sex in them. There's all kinds of building. There's different kinds of crafts. And there's different, kind of, allusions to the body and its functions.

MICHEL: Of the three dozen pieces in Nagle's current exhibition at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan, all are under 8 inches at any direction. These are sculptures, no cups, no bowls. They're multicolored and multitextured - one pebbled, the other smooth, one mottled, the other slick. Thin, coral-like branches tilt atop a slab. A sort of beaver's tail protrudes from a glowing orb. Definitely not his mother's ceramics, says Roberta Smith.

SMITH: I mean, it's an amazing life and career, and he's been able to maintain this kind of maverick status. And I think there's a kind of adolescent quality to his work, you know, like those titles. You know, like that piece, "Lotta Wattage."

MICHEL: "Lotta Wattage," "Centaur Of Attention," "Skin Grift" and "Lamb Shank Redemption." Nagle is big on titles.

NAGLE: I would say my greatest gift is my sense of humor - more than music, more than art. I love to laugh. I think part of that's because I'm basically a melancholy person.

MICHEL: That humor, with a tinge of latent menace, is also true of the music Nagle's continued to make during his career. He's even written songs for other artists.

NAGLE: Barbra Streisand, the Tubes, Pablo Cruise, Sammy Hagar, the Jefferson Starship...

MICHEL: You heard right, Barbra Streisand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CABIN FEVER")

BARBARA STREISAND: (Singing) Church bells were ringing, and I heard angels singing on the day that I said I do.

MICHEL: But it's Ron Nagle's sculptures that have earned him his widest audience and a show in a major gallery, displaying the objects in special vitrines, as if they were works of ancient pottery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

NAGLE: This is the big deal. This is it. This is the top of the bucket list. This is what I've always wanted.

MICHEL: After decades of work, Nagle's enjoying his cheese. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEESE NOW")

NAGLE: (Singing) Cheese now, cheese now - there's no time like the present to get it. Cheese now. I've paid too many dues to forget it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.