Below is a portion of an interview between Ariel Plotek and Ron Nagle, which was included in the museum’s exhibition catalogue. You can read our companion piece about Nagle’s current exhibition in San Diego Museum of Art in this week’s issue.
AP: I first saw your work in 2013, at the Venice Biennale. The exhibition’s curator, Massimiliano Gioni, had included thirty pieces in his “Encyclopedic Palace,” in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini. Displayed like alien confectionary in a table-sized case, these sculptures were surrounded by a selection of Tantric paintings, works as mysterious and evanescent as yours were other-worldly and haunting. Ceramic sculpture, it seemed, was making inroads. Talk to me about 3D Fiti, the title of one of the most recent works in this show for San Diego. Where did that idea come from?
Ron Nagle: I get my ideas from my environment, whether it’s the architecture that I grew up with or images that I’ve seen in the streets. In this particular case, I got my idea from graffiti. It’s all over the Mission district of San Francisco, really. I’m interested in balloon letters, where even though they’re flat, they give the impression of being round. I started taking pictures of these images with my phone, whenever one spoke to me. What I’ve done with my work is convert this flat graffiti into three dimensional form and then “elevate” them in some way on a block or a riser. Even if it’s just on a small scale, it gives the forms some prominence. What I’ve started doing more recently is combining these graffiti shapes with what I think of as sort of “mounds.” I mix these up now and again, and one kind of morphs into the other. What you get finally is a hybrid, a kind of formal non-sequitur.
AP: The Fiti pieces are a new series. But what about the themes you’ve returned to—sometimes after years. How does that come about?
RN: It’s always with the intent of doing better than I did the first time. Usually, what stops me from continuing with a project is that I just get bored with it. And it may take fifteen years before I look at it again and think, “OK, wait a minute, what else can I do with this?” That’s what happened with the snuff bottles. I had made some tiny covered jars in the sixties, and when I came back to them, I decided to blow them up in scale. I called them “snuff bottles” sort of flippantly, in honor of Chinese snuff bottles—which are actually quite beautiful but just a little elaborate for my taste. When I’m bored, the question is always, “What can I do to maintain my interest?” And that’s where the drawings come in. I’ve got stacks and stacks of drawings, and sometimes I’ll come back to them weeks or months later. And certain stuff just stands out. I’ll be like, “Oh yeah! I gotta do that!” And I’ll try something in passing, and it just develops from there.
AP: We’ve driven together around your old neighborhood. Tell me a little about where you come from.
RN: The architecture that I grew up with is what I call “Mexican Deco Stucco.” It’s a sort of hybrid that had its heyday in the thirties and forties. You get a lot of architectural details that look like they’re holding the whole building up. Lots of niches and façade decorations. For the longest time, lots of San Francisco buildings had stucco—stucco in colors that I thought were uglier than hell when I was a kid and later grew to love. A lot of pastel colors. And I incorporated them into the Archimetric pieces, that are also hybrids, or what some might call Postmodern. There’s also something very dumb and clunky about those old stucco houses, which is actually part of an aesthetic I really like a lot. Very boxy, like those old transformers for neon signs. What you get there is this sequence of shapes, one transitioning to the next. And some of them are actually quite beautiful, maybe even more so than the architecture—though it’s all part of the same bag.
AP: So that’s the architectural influence.
RN: For a long time, my music partner, Scott, told me that a lot of my stuff looked like buildings to him. And, I mean, a lot of this stuff, especially the geometric pieces from the eighties, looked like they could be architectural models. He saw them all as possible buildings. And the more that I looked at them, I said, “Yeah, that’s a possibility!” And Pin-Up magazine, which is a really high-end architecture magazine, will be running a feature, and they requested some of the older geometric stuff and also newer images. I was talking to the writer who came out to interview me about the possibility of some of my Archimetric pieces being converted into architecture. But I said it couldn’t just be a bungalow, it had to be a big fucking building. A skyscraper, maybe. I mean, just making something bigger doesn’t necessarily make it better. But if that’s what something suggests, it might be interesting.
AP: Was it interesting the first time you heard your work labeled Postmodern?
RN: I had to defend myself to the academic crowd, until a number of people pointed out that I was Postmodern before the term was invented. To draw a parallel to pop music, if you listen to records, particularly from the sixties, you might have someone like Burt Berns throwing a Latin rhythm into a pop tune. I mean, it was a total hybrid, and it was great. But in art you couldn’t do that, until someone said “Hey, let’s mix the old with the new. Let’s mix this idiom with that idiom. Let’s appropriate.” And I guess that’s what I was doing because I have many interests, both inside and outside of art, so let’s combine this shit.
AP: Speaking of outside interests: tell me about playing the Beatles in the classroom.
RN: When Sgt. Pepper was released and I played it for my students at the San Francisco Art Institute, I got asked to leave. I mean, the dean didn’t get it. That kind of music was thought of as a lower art form, you know. But the more time you spend in the recording studio, working with other people, the more you realize that there’s no difference in how people come up with ideas. I mean, I was doing something the other day, recording a track called “First Responder of Love,” and a fire engine drove by right in the middle of the take. Like, right on cue. It was even in tune. And you can’t ignore shit like that. And we had it on tape, but it was kind of low in the mix and we had to dial it up because we just kind of spun it in out of nowhere. That’s given to you, man! But the real gift is your ability to recognize (it).
And the same applies to art. And back in the sixties, everyone was so fucking dogmatic about, “Ok, it can only be this, or it can only be that…” You know, everything had to be a certain way. I mean, I knew what I was doing was different. But I just did what I felt like doing, until someone came along and put a label on it.
AP: Let’s talk about the vessel, and its importance for you as a sculptor.
RN: Yeah, sure, we can talk about that. There are certain things that contemporary ceramic sculpture kind of grew out of, like the vessel and using the vessel as a format, or vehicle, to build sculptural ideas. And that’s kind of how it started.
I mean that’s how Peter Voulkos started out. You know, he began with the wheel, then started branching out and using the wheel as just one of many tools. But I don’t like making distinctions between vessels and sculpture, in a hierarchical way. I chose to work with the cup because I’d seen some beautiful examples that Ken Price had done. And I’d also seen Japanese tea bowls. So I became interested in the cup formally, and its component parts, and how they could be broken down or deconstructed. You know, it has a lip, a body, a foot, and a handle. And because it has a handle, instead of two handles, in my mind it has a specific orientation, an A side. This is why I’ve always felt that the handle has to be on the right—I guess its because I’m right-handed. I also became concerned with the 2D profile of the piece and how it is displayed and photographed. From there, it just morphed, or transitioned, into sculpture. And I continued to work small, at the scale of the cup, maybe because of my background making model airplanes when I was a kid.
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